Attacks on the Press 2003: Iran

The death in detention of Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer Zahra Kazemi in July punctuated a year of ongoing state repression against dissident media. Newspaper closures continued, as did the arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of journalists.

The press crackdown further added to popular disappointment with Iran’s two-term president, Mohammed Khatami, whose attempts at social and political reform have been thwarted by the entrenched conservative establishment that controls most of the country’s main levers of power. Conservative-controlled courts continued to sanction and harass the media in 2003.

Kazemi’s death made international headlines and sparked a diplomatic row between Iran and Canada. Kazemi, a contributor to Recto Verso, a Montreal-based magazine, and the London-based photo agency Camera Press, was detained on June 23 while taking photographs outside Tehran’s Evin Prison. She was taken to Baghiatollah Hospital after being held in government custody for nearly two weeks. She died at the hospital on July 10.

Initially, Iranian officials maintained that Kazemi had died of a stroke, but on July 16, Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi announced that the cause of death was a “brain hemorrhage resulting from beatings.” A government inquiry released in late July concluded that Kazemi died as a result of a skull fracture likely caused by a blow to her head. The conservative and pro-reform factions that have vied for influence within the state apparatus appeared at odds over Kazemi’s death as new revelations were countered with denials and efforts to cover up the details.

In late July, authorities prevented an independent autopsy by burying Kazemi in Iran against the wishes of family members in Canada who had sought to repatriate the body. Canada responded by withdrawing its ambassador to Iran. In the ensuing months, several agents from the Intelligence Ministry were arrested in connection with Kazemi’s death, but by October just one–Mohammed Reza Aghdam Ahmadi–remained in jail. His trial was ongoing at year’s end. A parliamentary commission report released in November said that members of the Iranian judiciary had been holding Kazemi in custody when she was beaten, making it unlikely, according to journalists and reformist politicians, that those responsible for her death will be brought to justice.

Judicial authorities closed or suspended several pro-reform newspapers in 2003. In January, Iran’s Special Court for Clergy closed the leading reformist daily Hayat-e-No, and authorities detained its editor, Alireza Eshraghi, and two other journalists after the paper reprinted a 1930s American cartoon depicting U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt squashing a Supreme Court justice with his thumb. The cartoon triggered outrage among religious conservatives because the judge was thought to resemble former Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Also in January, a court indefinitely suspended the popular reformist daily Bahar after it ran stories about funding for state television and the alleged financial improprieties of a charitable society run by senior religious officials. In September, another reformist daily, Yas-e-No, was shuttered for 10 days after it refused to reprint an article it had run by Tehran prosecutor and press nemesis Saeed Mortazavi about jailed political activist Abbas Abdi. Mortazavi complained that his article had not been displayed prominently enough in the newspaper the first time it was published.

Dozens of newspapers have been suspended or closed since April 2000, when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly lashed out against reformist publications, triggering a judicial crackdown on the press.

Government forces have routinely detained, questioned, and brought criminal charges against journalists in response to news coverage and opinions deemed provocative by the conservative establishment. In July, authorities detained Iraj Jamshidi, editor of the daily newspaper Asia, after he published a photograph of Maryam Rajavi, who heads the Iranian opposition group the People’s Mujahedeen. The government closed Asia, and at year’s end Jamshidi remained in jail.

At the end of 2003, at least three journalists were imprisoned in Iran for their work, in addition to several activists and dissident intellectuals who had formerly worked in the media. In February, the government freed Emaddedine Baghi, a maverick investigative journalist who was jailed in May 2000 for publishing articles about the role of Intelligence Ministry agents in the 1998 murders of several Iranian intellectuals and dissidents. In December, a revolutionary court handed him a suspended one-year prison sentence in a separate case but did not make clear on what charges the journalist had been convicted.

The government used other levers of control against the print media. The Supreme Council for National Security, which comprises President Khatami and other top state officials, frequently censors sensitive political news. For example, in May, the council barred the media from reporting on a petition signed by more than 100 reformist members of Parliament calling on Ayatollah Khamenei to stop blocking political reforms.

The Internet, particularly in the form of Web logs, has become an increasingly important forum for journalists, political activists, and intellectuals. Web access in Iran has largely been unregulated, but in 2003, the government followed through on threats made in previous years that it would begin to censor content. In May, the government ordered local Internet services providers to begin filtering pornographic material, as well as certain opposition news sites. According to local and international press reports, the conservative-controlled Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council has ordered tens of thousands of sites to be blocked.

Sensitive to the growing influence of the Internet as a platform for political ideas, the government arrested Internet journalist Sina Motallebi on April 20, apparently in response to critical content on his Web site He was released in May.

Iranians have also turned to satellite television as a source of independent news. Local television and radio remain state-owned and under the influence of conservative elements of the regime. Though technically banned, satellite dishes are widespread. The government has accused U.S.-based Iranian satellite news channels of fomenting student demonstrations and political unrest and took measures to jam their broadcasts during 2003. In January, the Council of Guardians, a conservative body that ensures laws conform to Islamic principles, rejected a parliamentary proposal to make limited satellite programming legally available to the public.