With world attention focused on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the hard-line government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turned the screws on press freedom and intimidated critical journalists into silence or self-censorship.
Ahmadinejad, who has pursued the conservative parliament’s policy of relentlessly stifling independent journalism since his election in August 2005, used the nuclear debate to deflect criticism of his human rights record both internally and externally, according to Iranian journalists. He exploited a standoff with the United States over the acquisition of nuclear technology to rally domestic public opinion and insist that Iran had an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. He accused Washington of double standards in seeking to deny Iran a nuclear industry while it backed the nuclear ambitions of other countries in the Middle East and Asia.
Freed Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji lamented Western countries’ preoccupation with the nuclear issue at the expense of attention to Tehran’s poor human rights and press freedom record. Ganji spent six years in prison for investigative articles that implicated top officials in a series of murders. Released in March and allowed to leave Iran, Ganji toured the United States and Europe in an attempt to put Iran’s oppression of independent journalists and political dissidents back into the public arena.
Meeting with CPJ at its New York offices on August 17, Ganji said that the threat of imprisonment had kept most journalists from writing on sensitive topics, and that self-censorship had become the norm in Iran. He noted that authorities kept Iran low on the list of countries that jail journalists by sentencing reporters to lengthy prison terms but not actually putting them behind bars for long periods. The constant threat of incarceration has been enough to keep journalists at heel.
Since 2000, Iranian courts have banned more than 100 publications critical of the regime, forcing reformist journalists to abandon the profession or switch to blogs, which soared in popularity until the October 2004 arrest of more than 20 bloggers. All but one were eventually released. The exception was Arash Sigarchi, a blogger and former editor of the daily Gilan-e-Emrouz in northern Iran, who is serving a three-year prison sentence.
In January, an appeals court upheld Sigarchi’s conviction on charges of espionage, engaging in propaganda against the system, undermining national security, and insulting supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The charges followed interviews he gave to BBC World Service radio and the U.S. government-funded Radio Farda. He was also vocal through his now-defunct blog, Panhjareh Eltehab (The Window of Anguish), in which he often criticized the government and protested the detention and mistreatment of other Iranian bloggers.
Even reporting the arrests of bloggers has drawn government persecution. Mojtaba Saminejad, a journalism student and blogger, spent nearly 20 months in jail after he reported that charges had been brought against three other bloggers. Authorities granted him home leave in June 2006 and he was officially freed in September.
On January 29, seven journalists including Mohsen Dorostkar, editor-in-chief of Tammadon-e Hormozgan, and Elham Afroutan, a journalist for the weekly, were jailed after publishing a satirical article by an Iranian blogger in Germany that likened Iran’s 1979 revolution and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s subsequent reign to the AIDS virus. While five of the journalists were briefly detained, Dorostkar and Afroutan spent more than four months in jail and were released in early June after posting bail of 300 million rials (US$33,900). A court convicted Afroutan of propagating offensive material; Dorostkar was acquitted. In September, the Appeals Court in Tehran upheld Afroutan’s conviction, but reduced her one-year prison sentence to the 91 days already served.
In battling Web discourse, the government augmented law enforcement with technology. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology launched a filtering system that recognized Web sites containing “illicit” words. In January, the BBC reported that its Farsi Web site, the most popular of its non-English-language sites with 30 million page views a month, was blocked. The semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency quoted officials as saying that the BBC had “crossed red lines.” Journalists said it was increasingly difficult to know where those lines were drawn, but insulting Khamenei was certainly one. During the year, negative reporting on the nuclear issue became another. Beginning March 21, the National Supreme Security Council warned editors against publishing political analyses that deviated from official policy, according to the online daily Rooz.
Some of those who crossed red lines were sentenced to prison but not jailed. On August 19, Saghi Baghernia, publisher of the daily economic newspaper Asia, received a six-month jail sentence from a Tehran court for “insulting the regime,” according to CPJ sources. She was not jailed but may be summoned at any time to serve her sentence, the sources said. On July 5, 2003, Baghernia published a photograph of Paris-based Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi smiling after her release from a French prison, where she had been held on terrorism charges. Rajavi is the wife of Massoud Rajavi, leader of Mujahedeen Khalq, a group that the United States considers a terrorist organization, and which is dedicated to the overthrow of the government in Tehran. Baghernia was convicted as the license holder of Asia.
Issa Saharkhiz, managing editor of the now-defunct critical monthly Aftab, received a four-year prison sentence and a five-year ban on practicing journalism from a court of first instance in Tehran on August 28, according to the Iran Student News Agency. The court revoked the monthly’s publishing license, which had already been suspended. Saharkhiz was convicted of disseminating false information in articles he published several years ago that criticized Iran’s human rights record, particularly prison conditions. Saharkhiz was free pending appeal.
The government banned at least 12 pro-reformist publications during the year, according to Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, spokesman for the Iranian Committee for the Defense of Freedom of the Press. On September 11, authorities indefinitely shuttered the most prominent critical daily, Shargh, saying it had not replaced as ordered Managing Director Mohammad Rahmanian, who was accused of publishing blasphemous articles and insulting officials.
Iran’s Press Supervisory Board criticized Shargh for publishing a cartoon of a donkey with a halo of light around its head. Some opposition Web sites had quoted Ahmadinejad as saying that he was protected by a divine halo during his U.N. General Assembly speech in New York in 2005, Reuters reported. The president’s office denied he had made the comment. Shargh’s criticism of the Supreme National Security Council, which was in charge of nuclear negotiations with the West, angered authorities, who viewed the cartoon as an attempt to undermine the council, Shamsolvaezin told CPJ.