Attacks on the Press 2001: Iran

The Iranian judiciary pushed ahead with its year-old crackdown on media dissent, further exacerbating an ongoing power struggle between conservative and reformist factions in the Islamic Republic.

The crackdown began in April 2000, when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a fiery speech accusing the country’s reformist press, which generally backs President Muhammed Khatami’s agenda of social and political liberalization, of being foreign agents. Conservative judicial authorities took the speech as their cue to close dozens of newspapers and jail several journalists.

The repression continued throughout 2001. At least 20 newspapers and other publications were suspended by the courts on an array of vague charges such as “publishing lies” and “defamation.” By year’s end, at least five journalists were in jail on charges related to their journalistic work, while dozens more had been summoned to court, were appealing pending prison sentences, or had been fined and barred from practicing their profession.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ placed Khamenei at the head of its annual Ten Worst Enemies of the Press list. Khatami was re-elected in June, at a difficult time for the reformist movement that he inspired. See CPJ’s 2001 Enemies list.

In 1997, Khatami came to office promising Iranians more freedom of expression, democracy, and respect for the rule of law. His first term saw the emergence of a new liberal press that quickly began to debate sensitive topics such as official corruption, the undemocratic behavior of the ruling clerical establishment, and even Iran’s theocratic form of government.

While the press helped mobilize Iran’s burgeoning reform movement, conservative forces within the regime quickly used their control over key institutions, such as the courts, to target the media.

The Tehran Press Court prosecuted reformist publications throughout 2001, despite vocal protests from journalists and members of the reform-dominated Majles, or Parliament. In December, three Iranian parliamentarians were convicted of libel and other offenses in connection with their scathing criticisms of the judiciary. Among them was Hossein Loghmanian, who was jailed for libeling the courts after he denounced the press crackdown.

The Press Court closed newspapers and prosecuted journalists for vague offenses such as “insulting the leadership” and publishing lies, falsehoods, slander, or “propaganda against the State.” Other courts, such as the Special Court for Clergy and the revolutionary court system, were employed to similar effect against newspapers and journalists.

Since April 2000, the courts have closed at least 47 publications, the vast majority of which were reformist in their editorial orientation. Only a handful of banned newspapers have been allowed to resume publishing. Several previously suspended newspapers were banned for good in 2001.

In December, the head of the judicial administration in Tehran, Abbas Ali Alizadeh, said that the mass closures of newspapers and publications were undertaken for “the sake of God.”

“One of our greatest glories is [the] closure of offending newspapers,” Alizadeh boasted. “Based on our assessments, by doing this, we have done the greatest service to the people.”

In spite of the crackdown, a handful of reformist papers were still publishing in Tehran at year’s end, along with a number of smaller provincial and student publications. The surviving newspapers have generally toned down their reporting and analysis.

Many journalists were forced to take jobs at conservative papers or abandon journalism altogether. In addition to the five journalists behind bars for press offenses, several other writers and journalists, many of them active in the reform movement, were jailed without charge or for reasons related to the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas. Many were denied access to their families or lawyers.

In January, the prominent investigative reporter Akbar Ganji, whose articles on the murders of Iranian intellectuals and dissidents in 1998 implicated several top government officials, was sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by five years of internal exile. Ganji was convicted based on his participation in a 2000 conference in Berlin on the future of the Iranian reform movement.

In May, an appellate court reduced Ganji’s sentence to six months, half the time he had already served. A higher court struck then struck down that verdict. In July, Ganji was sentenced to six years in jail by another appellate court. At press time, he still faced additional charges in the Press Court.

In a positive development, Iranian editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin was released from prison on September 12, after spending 17 months behind bars. Shamsolvaezin, who edited the groundbreaking dailies Jameah, Tous, Neshat, and Asr-e-Azadegan before each was closed, had been serving a 30-month sentence for publishing an article that criticized capital punishment in Iran. In 2000, Shamsolvaezin received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award for courage and independence in news reporting. Another jailed editor, Latif Safari, director of the banned daily Neshat, was also released during the year.

Although local journalists bore the brunt of state harassment, foreign reporters were also targeted at times. In early February, Reuters bureau chief Jonathan Lyons and his wife, Guardian and International Herald Tribune reporter Geneive Abdo, fled the country, fearing official reprisals over an interview that they had conducted with the jailed Ganji.

In the interview, Ganji criticized conservatives and warned of a social explosion in Iran. Iranian authorities later barred Lyons from returning to the country and apparently warned the couple that they might face unspecified criminal charges.

The Internet remained a small but important source of alternative information for many Iranians. According to one estimate, there are some 380,000 Internet users in Iran, out of a population of 73 million. The country had about 100 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and about 1,500 Internet cafés in the capital, Tehran. Some ISPs do take it upon themselves to filter objectionable political and moral content.

In May, the authorities closed down some 450 Internet cafés in an apparent attempt to protect the state telecommunications monopoly against competition from low-cost Internet telephone service. The cafés were allowed to reopen in June after they obtained new licenses.

That month, however, state telecom ordered Iranian ISPs to block material deemed immoral or threatening to state security, including dissident Web sites. It was unclear whether the order was practical or enforceable. And in November, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, a government body, issued a decree requiring all private ISPs to dismantle their operations and hand over their assets to the state. The controversial decree had not yet been implemented at press time.

Likewise, it remained unclear whether the directive was enforceable and whether the council had the constitutional authority to pass it in the first place. Parliament was expected to debate the issue in 2002.

Television and radio remained in the hands of the conservative establishment and largely reflected its views. Satellite dishes remained popular, despite a 1995 ban on their use, allowing Iranians access to international programming. In late October, however, authorities confiscated some 1,000 dishes and arrested several dish owners.

The dish crackdown was an apparent state response to provocative broadcasts by satellite channels affiliated with secular Iranian opposition groups based in the United States. Satellite broadcasts of Iranian soccer matches were introduced by commentators who condemned the Islamic regime and called on Iranian citizens to hold street demonstrations. They also broadcast footage showing soccer fans vandalizing property after the matches. The authorities later threatened to confiscate thousands more dishes.

January 17


Iranian state radio and television announced the closure of the monthly cultural and intellectual magazine Kiyan. Judge Saeed Mortazavi, head of Tehran’s Press Court, ordered the magazine shut down, claiming it had “published lies, disturbed public opinion and insulted sacred law.”

The closure was reportedly based on complaints filed by prosecutor general Abbassali Alizadeh. No specific offending articles were cited.

January 27

Naghi Afshari, Hadis

Afshari, editor of the weekly Hadis, was arrested for publishing articles and cartoons deemed “insulting” and “critical” of the Iranian courts. The Tehran Press Court banned Hadis on January 28.

On January 29, Ashari was released on bail pending charges. CPJ was unable to obtain any further information about the case by press time.

February 11

Mohammad Bagher Vali-Beik, Jameah-e-Ruz

Vali-Beik, director of the Jameah-e-Ruz publishing house, which has published several leading reformist newspapers since 1997, was arrested by order of the Tehran Press Court.

According to local press reports, Vali-Beik was accused of “supervising crimes committed by four newspapers.” No details were provided.

Vali-Beik was released on bail on February 21 pending trial.

March 8


Iran’s Press Court suspended the conservative weekly newspaper Harim for allegedly defaming President Muhammad Khatami. The closure reportedly came after the newspaper published an article titled, “The Slogans of Mr. K,” which criticized the president over his campaign promises to establish the rule of law and a civic society in Iran.

March 18

Jameah Madani

Tehran’s Press Court ordered the closure of four pro-reform publications: the weeklies Jameah Madani and Mobine, the daily Doran-e-Emrooz, and the monthly Payam-e-Emrooz.

State-controlled television reported that the action was taken because the four publications committed “numerous and continuous violations of the law.” No further details were provided.

April 25


The state news agency IRNA reported that a local court had banned the weekly Amin-e-Zanjan for “sowing seeds of discord.” The court also said that the paper’s content was likely “to provoke riots in the city.”

The paper’s director and other staff members were charged with “disrupting security and tranquility.” It was not clear which articles prompted the ban.

May 9

Hamid Jafari Nasrabadi, Kavir
Mahmoud Mojdavi, Kavir

Nasrabadi, director of the Shahid Rajai University student magazine Kavir, and Mojdavi, a writer at the paper, were arrested by order of Tehran’s Press Court in connection with an allegedly “indecent” article by Mojdavi. According to press reports, the seven-page article, titled “Trial of the Universal Creator,” described fictitious proceedings in which God was put on trial. Officials said the article carried an “indecent tone and insulting interpretations.”

Nasrabadi and Mojdavi were reportedly sentenced in December to five and three years respectively.


Tehran’s Press Court suspended the reformist daily Nowsazi, alleging that its editor, Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, was not competent to publish the paper. The court further alleged that Jalaiepour published other banned papers that printed so-called criminal material. No further details were provided.

Prior to the ban, Nowsazi had only published four editions. A staff member from the paper told Agence France-Presse that the publication received a fax from the Justice Department indicating that the paper’s license had been withdrawn.

Abbas Dalvand, Lorestan

An Iranian Press Court in the province of Lorestan sentenced Dalvand, director of the weekly Lorestan, to nine months in prison and barred him from working as a journalist for three years. Dalvand was convicted of “slander, affront, libel, and spreading lies and publishing falsehoods,” according to the conservative daily newspaper Kayhan.

The Press Court judge reduced Dalvand’s sentence from 21 months and lifted an additional sentence of 90 lashes.

According to Kayhan, “the jury found the accused guilty of libel, slander and insult of the former head of the health network of Aligudarz, slander of a number of legal institutions and publishing satire in prose and printing falsehood against the Law Enforcement Force and the relief committee presumably the Imam Khomeyni Relief Committee.”

Dalvand was arrested on February 14 and released on February 18 after posting bail. At press time he was free pending review of his appeal.

June 10

John Simpson, BBC

Simpson, a veteran BBC reporter, and a two-member camera crew were attacked by members of the extremist Ansar-e-Hezbollah militia while covering Iran’s presidential elections.

According to Simpson, between eight and 10 Ansar-e-Hezbollah members surrounded him and his crew and tried to confiscate their camera equipment as they filmed crowds celebrating President Muhammad Khatami’s June 8 reelection. When the crewmembers resisted, they were punched and kicked, Simpson said.

Police then intervened and pushed the journalists into a car, during which time one of the assailants poked Simpson in the eye. The journalists were taken to a police station and held for about three hours before an apologetic government official released them at 3:30 a.m.

June 26


On or about June 26, Iranian judicial authorities ordered the Yazd University campus magazine Arman closed. The closure reportedly came after unspecified Islamic and cultural groups issued complaints about some of the publication’s articles.

June 30

Morteza Taghi Pour, Faryad
Ruzbeh Shafii, Faryad
Mohammad Reza Shirvand, Faryad

On or about June 30, Taghi Pour, director of the Khajeh-Nassir-Tussi Technical University campus magazine Faryad, and Shafii and Shirvand, writers for the magazine, were arrested by order of the Tehran Revolutionary Court. The arrests reportedly came in response to an allegedly offensive article the magazine published about the Twelfth Imam, an important figure in the Shi’a Islamic tradition.

The state news agency IRNA reported on July 30 that the case against the three journalists had originally been filed in a Public Court but was later transferred to a Revolutionary Court. The three journalists were released in late August 2001.

July 16

Akbar Ganji, Sobh-e-Emrooz, Fat’h

Ganji, a well-known investigative journalist whose reporting on the 1998 murders of several Iranian intellectuals and dissidents implicated senior government officials, was sentenced to six years in jail on charges of collecting confidential information that harmed national security and spreading propaganda against the Islamic system.

The charges stemmed from Ganji’s participation in a controversial April 2000 conference in Berlin on the future of the Iranian reform movement. Ganji was arrested when he returned to Iran on April 22, 2000, and was charged with Press Law violations based on his published work. His public remarks during the Berlin conference were used to justify the charges of threatening national security and spreading propaganda against the Islamic regime.

In January 2001, the Revolutionary Court initially sentenced Ganji to 10 years in prison, followed by five years of internal exile. In May, an appellate court reduced Ganji’s punishment to six months in prison, though he had already served more than a year.

The Iranian Justice Department then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the appellate court had committed errors in commuting the original 10-year sentence, IRNA, the Iranian news agency, reported.

The Supreme Court overturned the appellate court’s decision and referred the case to a different appeals court, which sentenced Ganji to six years in prison on July 16. According to IRNA, the ruling was “definitive,” meaning that it could not be appealed.

In a July 16 statement, CPJ condemned the new sentencing. “This judgment clearly shows that certain powers in Iran are intent on keeping Ganji and his colleagues behind bars at all costs,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper.

August 4


Judicial authorities revoked the license of Farday-e-Rochan, a weekly based in the western town of Zanjan, for allegedly publishing false and defamatory articles.

The state news agency IRNA reported that conservative organizations had filed several complaints against the publication but provided no further information.

August 8


Tehran’s Press Court suspended the moderate reformist daily Hambasteghi following an unspecified complaint from Iranian judicial authorities.

The closure came shortly after the paper published the comments of a pro-reform parliament member who accused the head of the judiciary, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, of “acting outside the interest of Iranians.”

The closure, which took place the same day reformist president Muhammad Khatami delivered a speech about press freedom, was interpreted as a snub from the conservative judiciary.

On August 20, judicial authorities issued a statement saying that the ban on Hambasteghi was lifted after the paper’s managing editor acknowledged having published “mistakes” and “insulting articles.” Shahroudi reportedly approved the move.

September 8


On or about September 8, Iran’s Special Court for Clergy, a conservative tribunal that operates independently of the regular Iranian court system, ordered the indefinite closure of the weekly cultural magazine Mehr, reportedly for “spreading lies to public opinion.”

The precise reason for the closure was unclear. However, some press reports noted that the magazine had criticized the country’s broadcast media, which are controlled by conservative forces, in a recent edition.

September 20


A court in the city of Qom closed the conservative local weekly Rahiyan-e-Feyziyeh for “insulting” government officials. The paper had accused President Muhammad Khatami, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, and former culture minister Ayatollah Mohajerani of “betraying religion.”

October 30


Publication of the reformist weekly Omid-e-Zanjan was suspended after a court in the northwest city of Zanjan found the paper guilty of printing stories that allegedly defamed Iranian government officials and the Islamic Republic, according to local sources.

In addition, the paper’s editor, Ja’afar Karami, received a two-year suspended sentence. He was charged with “creating a schism among people’s ranks.” Karami was given 20 days to appeal the court’s decision, but the case was still pending at press time.

November 29


The Tehran Press Court closed the reformist daily Mellat, allegedly to prevent it from fomenting “crises and insecurity,” according to the state news agency IRNA.

Court officials claimed that Mellat had ignored previous warnings, IRNA reported. It was not clear which particular articles provoked the closing.