Kourosh Ziabari on Journalism, Courage, and Learning from Everyone

May 15, 2024

Kourosh Ziabari, CJS’24, is a journalist who reports on Iran and the Middle East. In this interview, he shares how he began practicing journalism at a young age alongside his parents in Iran and has since developed an international reporting career. He also reflects on his time at Columbia, the challenges facing journalists, and the importance of free speech and free press.


"I try to learn from every person. I learn from my daughter, who is now ten. It doesn't need to be through a hierarchy of academic relationships. You can learn from every observation, every encounter, every daily experience."

Kourosh Ziabari, CJS'24

This interview was edited for length, clarity, and style.

What sparked your interest in journalism?

My parents began running a small local publication in northern Iran one year before I was born.  The publication recruited many young journalists who became prominent in the industry. They refused to be conformists, who do publicity on behalf of officials. It became the longest-running weekly publication in the province of Guilan. 

I opened my eyes to a room filled with papers, books, pens, and stationery. The exposure to the newsroom run by my father, the experience of talking to journalists, and internalizing that very special atmosphere inspired me. 

I started practicing journalism when I was a primary school student, writing opinion pieces edited and proofread by my parents. Those drafts developed into full-fledged stories and I would go to the newsroom after school. I also worked with my father's publication as an illustrator and layout designer. Some nights we stayed up into the morning, and I would be late for school the day after. By the time I was a high school student, many of the nationally circulated papers in Iran had featured my work. 

I learned about my father’s passing on March 1st of this year. I couldn't return to Iran to take part in the funeral, given the nature of my work as a journalist. As I worked through the journalism program here, I would update him about my progress and contributions. He was really excited for me. I’ve tried to embrace the principles and values he taught me, including integrity and honesty.

Kourosh Ziabari standing near Alma Mater on the Morningside Campus

"I’ve tried to embrace the principles and values my father taught me, including integrity and honesty."

Kourosh Ziabari, CJS'24

How did you continue to advance your career? What led you to the Columbia University School of Journalism?

I expanded my career by joining a popular science magazine, called Daneshmand (“scientist” or “knowledgeable” in Persian). Then, I started reaching out to prominent scientists and scholars. I conducted around 25 interviews with Nobel Prize laureates in different disciplines, including chemistry, physics, economics, and medicine. 

When I was pursuing my undergraduate studies in English literature, I started contributing to some little-known, progressive international publications. I was exploring opportunities beyond the borders of the country where I was living, and I was not content with only appealing to a domestic audience. I wished to experiment with having my work disseminated to the readership worldwide. 

In 2014, I joined the San Francisco-based Fair Observer as a correspondent reporting from Iran. I conducted interviews with several world leaders, prime ministers, and former and current presidents on a range of stories – not just confined to the Middle East or Iran. Some of these stories gained traction, and I learned there was a potential for me to develop my international portfolio. 

I joined the Asia Times in 2018 as an Iran correspondent. Iran had ceased to be a hospitable place for journalists, and reporters who were working with international publications were scrutinized more closely. I was navigating all these complexities while reporting on the ground. I contributed to several publications as a freelancer, including Foreign Policy, New Lines Magazine, and Al-Monitor

My very fragile, weak Iranian passport didn't give me much mobility, but building on awards and fellowships with international organizations, I was able to immerse myself in international reporting. I reported from 16 countries.

In 2022, I received the World Press Institute’s fellowship at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. They've been running this journalism program since 1962, and I was the first Iranian fellow since 1979. Later that year, I covered the UN General Assembly during the nationwide uprising in Iran. It was an especially difficult time for all journalists covering those protests, with many of those who covered it firsthand remaining behind bars.

After years of practicing journalism, I believed I still needed academic training to transform my work, so I came to Columbia.

Kourosh at the United Nations headquarters in 2022 when he received a fellowship from the Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists.

What challenges do journalists face in Iran and globally?

The space for investigative journalism has been shrinking rapidly in Iran. What could have been considered acceptable four years ago is totally unthinkable today. 

Sometimes, I had to struggle with how I would identify or refer to the highest authority in the country and which honorifics to use to describe him. When people were killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by a militant group from overseas, you wouldn't be able to refer to them as being killed. You have to consider and identify those people as martyrs. These are the sort of questions we had to grapple with in Iran, let alone modest criticism of the authorities. 

There are so many places where journalism continues to be very difficult and dangerous. If the press, as the watchdogs of public opinion, are not able to do their job, then what sort of societies are we going to have?

Kourosh speaking at California State University, Sacramento

What have been some of your most memorable experiences at Columbia? 

The first day I arrived in New York, I passed by the university gates and caught a glimpse of what I assumed was Pulitzer Hall. I felt I wouldn't even have the courage to go into the building because it was so prestigious, with a hallowed history behind it. I thought, How am I going to muster the courage to approach the building? 

My first time on campus was during pre-orientation. There was an event featuring Jake Tapper and Dean Jelani Cobb that was tremendously inspiring. It was about how the journalism landscape is evolving, the impact of misinformation and fake news on the communities, and how crucial our responsibility is now as media practitioners.

As someone who had dreamt of sitting at Columbia and always believed I wasn't deserving enough, even commuting to campus and walking by the trees lining up the buildings and libraries has been an inspiring experience. Being part of this community gave me the chance to make progress and translate my ideas into reality. 

Who have been some of your mentors and people you’ve learned the most from? 

I try to learn from every person. I learn from my daughter, who is now ten. It doesn't need to be through a hierarchy of academic relationships. You can learn from every observation, every encounter, every daily experience.

Many of the lecturers and academics who have taught us are people I have been reading in newspapers and magazines ahead of enrolling in our program. I had a class with Professor Alexander Stille, who I interviewed back in Iran when I was 19 years old. Twelve years later, I became his student.

I've submitted my thesis project and Professor Nicholas Lemann has been my advisor. He is a legendary name in the U.S. journalism landscape. He doesn’t send you wordy emails or advice on what to do or not to do. A very brief encounter with him would inspire me for weeks. I’ve learned a lot from his experience as an accomplished journalist and academic educator.

"I certainly include voices in my stories I don't agree with and from people who don't like me. As a journalist, you have to try to destroy your ego and be a pragmatic storyteller."

Kourosh Ziabari, CJS'24

Are there particular articles or projects you're most proud of?

I did an interview with the former President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian. I traveled to Armenia and met him for an extended interview shortly after the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan began. I also interviewed former U.S. Congressman James Slattery, who was one of the few U.S. politicians to travel to Iran post-1979. And I also feel quite positive about the interview I had once done with the former Austrian President Heinz Fischer about a range of political and economic issues related to Europe. 

And shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I interviewed the President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski, whose country at that time was the newest member state of NATO and had a lot to say about the war. 

Some of the Nobel Prize laureates I interviewed gave their last interviews to me. My article for Foreign Policy, “Iran’s Hijab Protests Are of Raisi’s Own Making” was shared widely on social media. I recently wrote for New Lines Magazine about Iran’s role in the conflict between Israel and Gaza. I also did a story about journalism in Iran. I explained why, despite crackdowns, imprisonments, and the closure of publications, people are still struggling to keep journalism alive in the country. These are the most mature publications I have done over the years. 

When I read some of your work, I noticed a deep respect and close attention to public opinion and public sentiment. How do you cultivate that?

It's the outcome of my commitment to the public interest. I see a value in giving people who are not normally approached by the media the chance to voice their opinions.

Whenever we tune into CNN, for example, and they're talking about Iran, there is a confined set of pundits who are featured. By giving a platform to a narrow set of people, we are minimizing and trivializing debate.

I try to gauge public sentiment by referencing surveys and interviews with ordinary citizens. I also reach out to unconventional sources. I hope I can play my part by identifying who is missing in the narrative.

I recently received an email from a source, from whom I requested to interview for my thesis. He didn't appreciate my previous writings and didn’t want to talk to me. I explained to him that I don’t consider agreement on everything to be a prerequisite for civil dialogue. If you don't endorse my writings, that's fine. It's a mutual benefit: I'm giving you a chance to represent your voice, and you are enriching my story by adding diversity to the discourse. If you're excluding yourself because of your disagreement with me, then my story ends up being much more homogenous. 

We don't need to agree on everything in order to talk to each other. I certainly include voices in my stories I don't agree with and from people who don't like me. As a journalist, you have to try to destroy your ego and be a pragmatic storyteller. 

In that humility, there's also trust in your reader, right? 

Exactly. Some massive egos dominate the media. That's one of the challenges we are facing in the journalism landscape.

Kourosh at the United Nations headquarters

What advice would you have for someone who is an aspiring journalist, especially someone coming to Columbia Journalism School?

It’s a brave decision. The business model is not sustainable. We are facing layoffs and making less money than other professions. It has to be a matter of passion and the value you place in the work you're doing. Recognition is often belated and sometimes far-fetched. I've grappled with this disappointment at times. If my goal is primarily to serve the public interest, I have to forget about my own recognition. It might happen; it might not.

Journalism requires the courage to acknowledge our own mistakes and correct them. 

To thrive, we have to come to terms with the realities of our time. Journalists can be under attack everywhere, even in democracies, and they can be extremely vulnerable. We are under attack from cyber bullies, authoritarian leaders, and even a PR person who might disapprove our work and share some unhappy comments. We have to develop the fortitude and the mental capacity to deal with those realities. 

What are you hoping for in the future? 

I recently submitted my MA thesis, a work of long-form investigative journalism on the divisions of the Iranian diaspora, and the ramifications of these fractures and infightings for the democratic movement of the people of Iran. The work exceeded the school's recommended word limit substantially, and currently stands at 20,000 words.

The feedback from my supervisor has been very positive, and I'll be working to expand it further so that it can be developed and published as a book. I've already received an offer from a publishing house in London to send them a proposal as they'd like to publish a non-fiction book on contemporary Iranian politics, and they've said they are interested in my writing. 

I also hope I can continue my studies at the doctorate level and later return to academia as a lecturer and practicing journalist.

I want to continue to tell solid stories. I've seen many people who have stopped practicing journalism because of the obstacles I described earlier. I want to make the commitment to continue. I wouldn't have been able to survive all of these difficulties without the passion and dedication my father nurtured in me when I was visiting his newsroom as a kid.

"There are so many places where journalism continues to be very difficult and dangerous. If the press, as the watchdogs of public opinion, are not able to do their job, then what sort of societies are we going to have?"

Kourosh Ziabari, CJS'24


Kourosh Ziabari profile photo

Kourosh Ziabari, CJS’24, is a journalist and reporter covering Iran and the Middle East. His writings have appeared in Foreign Policy, Asia Times, New Lines Magazine, Al-Monitor, Middle East Eye, The New Arab, The National Interest, Democracy in Exile, PassBlue and TRT World, among others. Earlier this year, he was invited to join PEN America as a member.


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