Iran must work toward improving press freedom

August 17, 2011

Dr. Ahmed Shaheed
U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran
Asia, Pacific Unit, Iran Desk
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Palais des Nations 
CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Dear Dr. Shaheed,

Ahead of your report on human rights in Iran to the U.N. General Assembly in September, I would like to take this opportunity to provide you with an assessment of the country’s state of press freedom as documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Authorities were detaining 34 journalists when CPJ conducted its annual worldwide census of imprisoned journalists on December 1, 2010, making Iran, along with China, the world’s worst jailer of the press. In reviewing these cases and their developments, we have identified three distinct and worrying developments to which we would like to draw your attention. 

Uncertain prison terms

Authorities are maintaining a revolving prison door, freeing some prisoners on furloughs even as they make new arrests. The furloughed journalists often post six-figure bonds and endure enormous political pressure to keep silent or turn on their colleagues. In March 2010, the government crackdown put 52 journalists behind bars, according to a survey conducted by CPJ, at the time the highest number of detainees we recorded in a single country since December 1996.

A recent example of this policy is journalist Ahmad Zaid-Abadi, who was imprisoned in June 2009 and granted a 48-hour furlough on August 4 after posting US$500,000 bail, according to the news website Rooz Online. Two days later, Zaid-Abadi turned himself in to authorities as required but was told that his furlough had been extended. One day later, on August 7, Rooz Online said, authorities summoned him back to prison, where he remains. Zaid-Abadi was sentenced in 2010 to six years in prison, five years’ exile to Gonabad, a city in Khorasan province, and “lifetime deprivation of any political activity” including “interviews, speech[es], and analyses of events, whether in written or oral form.” He was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2011 and the World Association of Newspapers’ Golden Pen of Freedom Award in 2010.

Prison sentences in Iran may also be increased without any due process, a retaliatory policy recently used against Mohammad Davari, who is currently serving a five-year sentence. One year was added to his jail term after he signed open letters and statements for political prisoners this past year.

Davari, the editor-in-chief of the reformist news website Saham News as well as a trade unionist and teacher, has been tortured and pressured to make televised confessions implicating leaders within the reformist movement, news reports said. In 2010, CPJ honored Davari with its International Press Freedom Award.

CPJ has found that furloughs and arbitrarily increased sentences make a mockery of formal sentencing and are simply a manipulative tactic used by the Iranian government to coerce prisoners into providing information, restrain them from engaging in protest actions inside prison, silence their grievances, or motivate them to cooperate with prison officials and interrogators.

Inhumane treatment

Imprisoned journalists suffer from the crowded and unsanitary conditions endemic to Iranian prisons, but they also face additional punitive measures such as the denial of family visits and placement in solitary confinement, CPJ research shows. Some have been denied medical care. Hoda Saber, editor of the long-defunct magazine Iran-e Farda, died in Evin Prison after suffering a heart attack on June 10, news and human rights reports said. Six hours passed before he was taken to a hospital, news reports said. Saber’s wife, Fariden Jamshidi, said that hospital personnel told her that her husband’s life “could have been saved had prison officials brought him earlier.”

Saber had been imprisoned in Evin Prison since July 2010 in relation to his political activism, CPJ research shows. The journalist had been on hunger strike since June 2 to protest the killing of another journalist and activist, Haleh Sahabi, who died from a violent blow by security personnel at her father’s funeral the previous day.

According to one account, the reformist news website Kaleme reported, 64 prisoners in Evin Prison’s Ward 350, which is reserved for political prisoners, issued a statement saying that Saber was severely beaten at the prison infirmary where he was initially taken.

A lack of due process

Iran targets lawyers who provide legal counsel for journalists. Writer, lawyer, and human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh is one example. Sotoudeh, who has served as legal counsel for several journalists imprisoned in Iran, was sentenced in January to 11 years in prison. The state claims that in advocating for the rights of her fellow Iranians, Sotoudeh engaged in “propaganda against the regime” for which she was given a one-year sentence. It also found her guilty of “acting against national security” and “violating the Islamic dress code (hijab) in a filmed speech,” which brought her an additional 10 years in prison. The court also banned her from practicing law and from traveling outside Iran for 20 years. This additional punishment begins after Sotoudeh’s release from prison. Her appeal is pending.

One way of measuring the deteriorating climate for Iranian journalists is to consider the number of journalists forced into exile. According to Journalists in Exile, CPJ’s 2011 special report, at least 18 Iranian journalists have fled their homes in the past year. Iran topped the list (tied with Cuba) for the second consecutive year as the government continued a crackdown that began with the disputed 2009 election. CPJ’s 2010 survey found that at least 29 Iranian editors, reporters, and photographers had fled into exile; the country’s total exodus over the past decade is 66, behind only Ethiopia and Somalia.

I am certain that you share our concerns regarding these developments, which are part of a pattern of human rights violations in Iran. Therefore we would be grateful if the deplorable state of journalists would find its due attention in your report and we would be pleased to provide you with any additional information you may require.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.


Joel Simon
Executive Director