Attacks on the Press 2010: Iran

Top Developments
• Authorities sustain their crack- down on critical journalists, arresting dozens.
• Journalists face harsh prison terms and mistreatment in custody.

Key Statistic
34: Journalists imprisoned on December 1. Along with China, Iran is the world’s worst jailer of the press.

Defying international condemnation, the government sustained its widespread crackdown on the press, prosecuting journalists arrested in the aftermath of the disputed June 2009 presidential election and detaining additional critical reporters and editors throughout 2010. More than 100 journalists in all had been detained at various times since the crackdown began, CPJ research showed, a campaign of intimidation unparalleled worldwide in more than a decade. The repression came at a time of great global significance that included disputes over Iran’s nuclear program and tightening international sanctions.


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Journalists were repeatedly sentenced to harsh prison terms–often of five or six years, but many of more than 10 years–on vague antistate charges such as “propagating against the regime.” News of these cases trickled out in brief online reports; authorities often pursued the prosecutions under cover of secrecy in closed courts, sometimes denying detainees access to counsel. Human rights defenders documented numerous credible reports that detainees were abused and housed in deplorable conditions.

Authorities maintained a revolving prison door throughout the year, freeing some detainees on furloughs even as they made new arrests. Journalists freed on furloughs often posted six-figure bonds and endured enormous political pressure to keep silent or turn on their colleagues. At its highest point, in March 2010, the government crackdown had put 52 journalists behind bars, the highest number of detainees CPJ had recorded in a single country since December 1996, when Turkey imprisoned 78 journalists.

At least 34 Iranian journalists remained behind bars when CPJ conducted its annual worldwide census on December 1, tying China as the world’s worst jailer of the press. But at least 31 other Iranian journalists were on short-term furloughs as of December 1 and could be returned to prison at the whim of the government. And the government made clear that it considered all critics to be enemies of the state. Speaking to a gathering of film industry professionals in September, Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Seyed Mohammad Hosseini warned attendees that their group could face the same fate as the Association of Iranian Journalists. “You saw what happened to it,” Asr-e-Iran quoted the minister as saying.

Authorities forcibly shut the journalists association, a government-licensed group, in 2009 and then prosecuted its leader in 2010. Badressadat Mofidi, secretary-general of the journalists association, was convicted in August on charges of “assembly and collusion to commit a crime” and “propagating against the regime.” Sentenced to six years in prison, she was free on bail in late year but was banned from working on “press-related activities.”

Imprisoned journalists suffered from the crowded and unsanitary conditions endemic to Iranian prisons, but they also faced additional punitive measures such as denial of family visits and placement in solitary confinement. Some were physically abused. Veteran columnist Issa Saharkhiz, for example, was kept in a prison yard overnight in freezing temperatures without shoes or socks, according to the reformist news website Rooz Online.

Deprived of recourse, journalists wrote letters of protest and waged hunger strikes. In April, a group of political detainees at Evin Prison wrote an open letter to senior clerics, citing lack of due process, violations of the law during interrogation, restrictions on choosing lawyers, and coercion to “confess” to crimes they did not commit. After the letter appeared on several reformist news websites, prisoners were deprived of their already-limited visitation privileges, transferred to solitary confinement, and subjected to various other arbitrary measures, reformist news websites reported.

Detainees who protested abuse or were perceived as taking on leadership positions were transferred to remote facilities, according to media and human rights organizations. Journalists Ahmad Zaid-Abadi, Kouhyar Goudarzi, Massoud Bastani, and Saharkhiz were transferred to the Rajaee Shahr Prison, which houses violent criminals, many of whom are drug addicts. The facility is infamous for violence, poor sanitary conditions, and the prevalence of communicable diseases, including AIDS.

Authorities routinely placed journalists in solitary confinement to coerce false confessions. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that blogger Hossein Derakhshan was held in solitary confinement for 10 months, during which he was beaten and pressured to confess to being part of an international conspiracy that included foreign intelligence agencies and other journalists and bloggers. Despite retracting his confession in front of a judge, saying that it was coerced, Derakhshan was sentenced in September to more than 19 years in prison on trumped-up espionage charges.

Hamzeh Karami, jailed editor of the reformist website Jomhoriyat, issued an open letter to the prosecutor general’s office in August in which he detailed the torture he said he had endured. “They put my head in a dirty toilet 20 times to make me give a false confession. When I screamed ‘Ya Allah’ they said, ‘We are your God today and will do to you whatever we want,'” the journalist wrote in his letter. Other detainees said they, too, were coerced into making false statements. Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, who spent four months in custody in 2009, described to CPJ a televised confession he was forced to make as an orchestrated affair designed to implicate and silence political opponents and neutral observers such as journalists. Interrogators, Bahari told CPJ, “flood you with a barrage of accusations. Then they say, ‘We can make a deal, we just need you to do an interview on Iranian television.'”

For detainees, prison conditions aggravated existing ailments and caused new health problems. Saeed Matin-Pour, a reporter for newspapers in western Azerbaijan province, suffered acute heart and respiratory problems but was denied adequate care, his wife told the Human Rights Activists News Agency. Hengameh Shahidi, who was severely beaten by an Evin Prison inmate, was granted medical furlough but was ordered back to prison after just three weeks, before she could complete all her medical examinations.

CPJ research showed the government cruelly manipulated medical furloughs. Veteran journalist Emadeddin Baghi, who suffered from respi-ratory and cardiac ailments aggravated by previous stints in prison, was transferred to a hospital in March after losing consciousness but was re-turned to prison within a few days, the BBC reported. He was released in the fall due to numerous health complications only to be recalled to prison in December.

Mofidi, the journalist association head, was denied a medical furlough after her health deteriorated in solitary confinement at Evin Prison. “She suffers from a heart condition and is being given strong tranquilizers as the interrogations are causing her a great deal of stress and exhaustion,” her daughters wrote in a letter that was published on reformist websites. The letter went on to describe “immense psychological and physical pressure, violent and continuous interrogations, solitary confinement, deprivation of phone calls to family, repeated change of prison cells, and an ambiguous legal case.” Mofidi was eventually released on bail pending an appeal of her six-year prison term.

A CPJ report released in June found that of the 85 journalists who left their home countries and went into exile in the previous 12 months, 29 were from Iran. That represents the highest single-year count from any country in the past decade. “My photos were seen as political criticism of clerics in Iran,” said photographer Mohammad Kheirkhan, who went into exile after being harshly interrogated following the June 2009 elections. CPJ research indicates that many of the exiled Iranian journalists were warned through unofficial channels that their families would face retaliation if they made critical statements about press conditions inside Iran.

In August, the imprisoned journalist Saharkhiz and his son, Mehdi, filed a lawsuit against Nokia Siemens Networks under the Alien Torts Act, which allows U.S. federal courts to hear human rights cases brought by foreign citizens for conduct outside the United States. The lawsuit alleged that by providing electronic surveillance technology to Iran, Nokia Siemens Networks and its parent companies, Siemens AG and Nokia Inc., were responsible for the abuses Saharkhiz suffered. In a statement, Nokia Siemens said its actions had not led to the journalist’s abuse.

Iranian authorities announced in November that two unnamed reporters for Bild am Sonntag, a German tabloid, would be charged with espionage. They were arrested in October after interviewing relatives of a woman convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning. Iran continued to hold two of three U.S. hikers it had detained on its border with Iraqi Kurdistan in July 2009. Iranian authorities set a February 2011 trial date for Shane Bauer, a journalist who was not on assignment at the time, and companion Josh Fattal. A third hiker, Sarah Shourd, was released in September.

The government’s assault on independent and opposition media silenced many critical voices. In addition to closing outlets outright and imprisoning key journalists, the government withheld state advertising and paper subsidies from critical newspapers. Publications still in print engaged in self-censorship to remain in business. Online media, however, provided robust coverage and analysis of domestic and international issues. They also devoted significant attention to the ongoing repression of journalists, bloggers, and political activists. 

Although scores of international journalists were expelled from Iran in the weeks and months following the June 2009 presidential election, some international correspondents remained inside the country. Major wire services maintained presences in Tehran, although they were closely monitored by authorities, frequently denied access to newsworthy events, and restricted to the capital without a government permit. Visas were routinely denied to international reporters who had written critically about the government in the past.

Throughout the year, CPJ mounted vigorous advocacy on behalf of persecuted journalists. In March, a coalition of groups led by CPJ launched a campaign called “Our Society Will Be a Free Society,” which was aimed at freeing imprisoned journalists. The campaign, named after a pledge made by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on the eve of the 1979 revolution, collected more than 3,500 signatures on a petition addressed to Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei. CPJ followed with letters to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad protesting harassment of journalists, and to judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani expressing concerns about prison conditions. CPJ also conducted detailed monthly tracking of journalists in prison.

The hardships endured by journalists in Iran have drawn international recognition. In November, CPJ awarded Mohammad Davari, editor-in-chief of the reformist news website Saham News, its 2010 International Press Freedom Award. Davari was serving a five-year prison term for “mutiny against the regime” after exposing widespread prisoner abuse and rape at the Kahrizak Detention Center. Saham News‘ coverage was central in exposing the extent of the abuse, which compelled authorities to shut down the facility in 2009.

Also in November, Kouhyar Goudarzi of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters received the Washington-based National Press Club’s 2010 John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press Award. Goudarzi was serving a one-year sentence for “propagating against the regime” and “congregation and mutiny with intent to disrupt national security.” Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist Jila Bani Yaghoob was awarded Reporters Without Borders’ Freedom of Expression Award in recognition of her online writings at the sixth international “Best of the Blogs” event held in Berlin in April.

In October, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers gave Ahmad Zaid-Abadi its Golden Pen of Freedom Award in recognition of his exemplary work. In his acceptance speech on behalf of the imprisoned Zaid-Abadi, exiled Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji called on those in attendance to shed more light on the injustices done to Zaid-Abadi and the scores of other imprisoned and targeted journalists and their families.