Iran arrests six documentary filmmakers

New York, September 19, 2011Iranian authorities have arrested six independent filmmakers on vague accusations that they engaged in a foreign conspiracy in connection with a critical new documentary about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to news accounts. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the arrests and calls for the journalists’ immediate release.

The six were arrested over the weekend, just as the BBC Persian service aired the piece on Khamenei, according to news accounts. It was not clear why the government targeted the filmmakers in connection with the documentary. The BBC reported that the film was produced in-house and that none of the six Iranian filmmakers was involved in its production. Representatives for the BBC Persian service did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for further comment.

Authorities have disclosed no formal charges against the five men and one woman. The reformist news website Human Rights House of Iran identified five of the journalists as Nasser Saffarian, Mojtaba Mirtahmasbi, Hadi Afarideh, Mohsen Shahrnazdar, and Katayoun Shahabin. The name of the sixth journalist has not been reported.

After the BBC began promoting the documentary last week, the government and its allies appeared to move preemptively. In a statement issued days before the documentary aired and picked up by the Iranian state news agency IRNA on Thursday, the pro-government Young Journalists’ Club said the arrest of a “BBC secret network” was imminent. “Several famous individuals, masquerading as artists, who have had extensive secret cooperation with the BBC Persian Service were identified and the necessary judicial actions will be taken with regard to them over the coming days,” the report said.

Although officially banned, the BBC is widely available via satellite in Iran. The documentary aired on the network’s Persian service as scheduled on Saturday, but the transmission was subjected to extensive interference, journalists told CPJ.

“With President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad due to appear before the U.N. General Assembly, now is the time for the international community to confront Iran’s relentless crackdown on independent news and commentary,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.

Separately, the family of prominent imprisoned journalist Issa Saharkhiz wrote to judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani last week to say that he has been subjected to inhumane treatment in custody, the Persian-language, U.S. government-funded Radio Farda reported. Saharkhiz’s son, Mehdi, previously told CPJ that his father’s health was deteriorating and that he suffered from high blood pressure, a ruptured eardrum, and a slipped disc. Mehdi Saharkhiz told Radio Farda that his father has developed a tumor that might be cancerous and that prison officials encouraged drug-addicted prisoners to attack him in exchange for drugs.

CPJ has documented a steady stream of arrests, imprisonments, and politicized convictions of journalists in Iran. In the latest crackdown on critical journalism, two Iranian publications, Shahrvand-e-Emrooz, a reformist weekly, and Roozegar, a reformist news website, were both banned by the government on September 5.