Attacks on the Press 2004: Iran


In an effort to counter the growing influence of Internet journalists and news bloggers, whose popularity has grown as sources of dissident news and opinion, Iranian officials imposed new constraints on Internet use, blocked Web content, and arrested a number of online journalists.

With the reformist press nearly gutted and broadcast media firmly under the control of conservative political elements, many banned newspapers and pro-reform journalists migrated to the Web. A lively culture of news blogging captivated young readers, as evidenced by a 2004 survey suggesting that many Iranians trust the Internet more than other media, the Iranian Students News Agency reported. Bloggers also proved somewhat resistant to government censorship. In an online protest during several days in September, bloggers renamed their sites after government-shuttered newspapers and ran outlawed articles. The bloggers—some trained journalists but many simply young, involved Iranians—are not formally organized, but their loose affiliation and common pursuit of free expression enabled them to become a collective force in 2004.

Concerned by the growing influence of the Web, Iranian authorities struck back throughout the fall. Amir Mojiri, Babak Ghafori Azad, Hanif Mazrui, Omid Memarian, Shahram Rafizadeh, and Fereshteh Ghazi were among a number of Internet journalists and technicians arrested. All were eventually released, most on bail while their cases remained pending. Several other bloggers and Web technicians were questioned and briefly detained. In October, judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad said that individuals operating unauthorized Web sites would be prosecuted for “acting against national security, disturbing the public mind, and insulting sanctities.”

Officials continued to pressure Internet service providers to install filtering technology to block access to political blogs and reformist newspapers. Authorities reportedly blocked hundreds of political and reformist Web sites and blogs. In October, the judiciary announced it was drafting a new “cybercrime” law allowing criminal prosecution of people who disseminate information aimed at “disturbing the public mind through computer systems or telecommunications.” The law reportedly calls for prison sentences of up to three years for publishing information that threatens state “security,” or six months in jail for publishing “false information” about government officials. The measure, which would also require cybercafés to bar access to certain sites, was being finalized at year’s end.

The Internet restrictions were the latest crackdown on free speech by conservative government factions that have opposed the social and political reforms of President Mohammed Khatami. Eight years ago, Khatami came to office with promises of greater freedom of expression, democracy, and respect for the law. Khatami oversaw the emergence of a vibrant new press that began to tackle previously off-limits topics, such as official corruption, the undemocratic behavior of the ruling clerical establishment, and even Iran’s theocratic form of government. But old-guard defenders of Iran’s Islamic revolution, led by spiritual guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, later reversed the progress, using their control of powerful state institutions like the judiciary to close pro-reform newspapers, prosecute maverick journalists, and throw critics in jail. Since 2000, Iranian courts have closed more than 100 publications, most of which were pro-reform. The repression continued in 2004, and though Khatami has regularly protested, he has acknowledged that he can do little to stop it.

On the eve of February’s parliamentary elections, the country’s notorious Press Court suspended two leading reformist-leaning dailies, Yas e No and Sharq, after they published portions of an open letter from several reformists protesting the exclusion of hundreds of reform-minded candidates. The letter criticized Khamenei and asked whether he was complicit in the decision to bar the reformist candidates from running. Iranian authorities consider criticism of Khamenei intolerable, and the Press Court, which has closed a long line of newspapers and prosecuted numerous journalists, filled its reliably repressive role.

The Press Court shut two more dailies in July—Vaghaiee-e-Etefaghieh and Jumhuriat—for disseminating “propaganda” against the regime. No further explanation was given. Elsewhere, courts continued to summon journalists for questioning and launched new criminal suits. By year’s end, at least one journalist was in prison, in addition to many political dissidents and activists who were detained in the broader campaign to silence critics. Dozens of prosecutions were pending in the courts.

Officials continued to pressure dissident journalists and activists. Several were arrested, put under surveillance, or summoned to courts. Others were barred from leaving the country. Iranian journalist and human rights activist Emadeddin Baghi was prevented from traveling in October to Europe, where he was to meet with human rights groups, and to the United States, where he was to receive an international award for his work. An independent journalist and author of 20 books, Baghi heads the Committee for Defense of Prisoners Rights, an organization that helps defend intellectuals imprisoned for expressing pro-democracy ideas. Iranian authorities jailed Baghi in 2000 and held him for nearly three years for his reporting on the role of Intelligence Ministry agents in the 1998 murders of several Iranian intellectuals and dissidents. Since his release from prison in February 2003, Baghi has been subjected to ongoing surveillance and harassing court summonses related to his writing.

In July, an intelligence agent was acquitted in the 2003 killing of Canadian-Iranian freelance photographer Zahra Kazemi. The court cited insufficient evidence to convict Agent Mohamed Reza Aqdam Ahmadi of the “semi-intentional murder” of Kazemi, who died from a skull fracture likely caused by a blow to her head while in government custody. Kazemi had been detained for taking photographs outside Tehran’s Evin Prison.

The agent’s trial, which began on July 17, 2004, ended abruptly the following day. Kazemi’s legal team, headed by Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, accused the court of refusing to hear witness testimony or to consider evidence that implicated another prison official in delivering the fatal blow. Ebadi said she would appeal the verdict in Iranian courts and, if necessary, “to international courts and the United Nations.”

The government also harassed foreign reporters. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote that Iranian secret police detained him in May and demanded that he identify a source who had criticized the clerical regime. He refused to disclose the source but was freed without further incident. Also in May, Reuters reported that Iranian authorities refused to renew the accreditation of Dan DeLuce, correspondent for London’s Guardian newspaper, after he reported on the aftermath of the 2003 Bam earthquake without government permission. DeLuce may also have angered authorities with an earlier story critical of government reconstruction in the area.