Iran steps up its campaign against the press

New York, October 3, 2012–In a flurry of new anti-press actions in Iran, a jury has voted to convict a Reuters bureau chief on anti-state charges while authorities have jailed the head of the state’s official news agency, blocked Google services, and shut one reformist newspaper.

“The situation for independent journalists is Iran is worsening by the day,” said CPJ Deputy Director Rob Mahoney. “High-profile persecutions and imprisonments are an attempt by the authorities to intimidate the media into silence and self-censorship. The international community must speak out against such actions.”

A Tehran jury voted on Sunday to convict Thomson Reuters news agency on charges of “propagating against the Islamic Republic” and “disseminating false information to disturb public opinion,” according to the Iranian state-run Press TV. The jury also found the agency’s Tehran bureau chief, Parisa Hafezi, guilty on charges that included “spreading lies” and “propaganda” against the regime, Reuters reported. The jury acts in an advisory capacity, and the final ruling rests with the judge, who will issue a verdict later this month, news reports said.

The charges stem from a defamation lawsuit against Reuters filed in March by women who were initially called “assassins” in the headline of a video report on martial arts that Reuters published in late February, according to news reports. Once Reuters was told of the error, the agency issued a correction, removed the headline, and apologized, but Iranian authorities suspended the outlet’s press accreditation and forbade its journalists from reporting from inside the country, the outlet reported. Authorities also banned Hafezi, an Iranian citizen, from traveling and confiscated her passport, the report said.

“We understand that the jury has stated its view, and we now await the court’s ruling,” said Barb Burg, a Reuters spokeswoman. She said Reuters had no other comment at this time.

In a separate development, the director of the official Iranian News Agency (IRNA) was summoned on September 26 to serve a six-month prison sentence in Evin Prison, according to news reports. Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who is the director of IRNA’s print affiliate, Iran, as well as the press adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was sentenced in November 2011 to two six-month prison terms and a three-year ban on press activities, news reports said. An appeals court dropped one of his six-month sentences last month, IRNA reported.

Javanfekr was convicted of publishing content “contrary to Islamic standards” and “publishing obscene content,” for writing in an official publication that the practice of women wearing the chador–a head-to-toe cover–was not an authentic Iranian one, but instead had been adopted from other Muslim countries, news reports said. The comment angered Iranian clerics, another development in the ongoing feud between supporters of the president and those of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the reports said.

Authorities attempted further actions to restrict the Internet in the country. The government announced on September 23 that Google, its email service Gmail, and the Google-owned video-sharing site YouTube would be blocked indefinitely in response to citizen requests that YouTube be taken down for featuring a film that insulted Prophet Mohammed, according to news reports.

Internet users said on Monday that access to Gmail had been restored, but that YouTube remained blocked, according to news reports. Mohammed Reza Aghamiri, a member of the government’s Internet watchdog committee, told the semiofficial Mehr news agency that the block on Gmail had been unintentional and that technicians had not been able to block YouTube without blocking Gmail, but that the issue had since been resolved, news reports said. It is unclear if Google was still blocked in the country.

The government’s decision to block Google coincides with a plan to launch a “national Internet,” a domestic alternative that would essentially block Internet users from large parts of the Web including Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter and enforce stricter cyber control, news reports said. It is unclear when the project, dubbed “Yahaq” (Oh, Lord) is due to launch, the reports said.

Iran, which runs one of the toughest Internet censorship regimes, is ranked fourth on CPJ’s list of Most Censored Countries.

Authorities, who have shut down numerous publications since 2009, indefinitely suspended the reformist daily Shargh on September 26 for its publication of a cartoon that authorities deemed insulting to Iran-Iraq War veterans, according to news reports. The image shows a line of blindfolded men who use their unbound hands to tighten the blindfolds of the man in front of them instead of removing their own.

The cartoon, which appeared in Shargh‘s September 25 issue during the week-long commemoration of the Iran-Iraq War, was drawn by Hadi Heydari, a prominent Iranian cartoonist and the son of an Iran-Iraq War veteran, according to news reports. Heydari, who has received a judicial summons, issued a statement saying the image in no way mocked war veterans and was meant to symbolize ignorance while depicting no particular group, news reports said.

The paper’s editor, Mehdi Rahmanian, was summoned to court for questioning on September 26 and was subsequently detained in Evin Prison until his release on bail on Wednesday pending trial, reformist news websites said.

In a separate case, authorities on Monday entered the offices of Maghreb, another reformist daily, and arrested its editor, Mohammad Mehdi Emami Nasseri, according to news reports. Nasseri’s whereabouts and the charges against him were not immediately known.

At a press conference on Tuesday, a journalist asked Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi, the spokesman for the Iranian judiciary, whether Nasseri’s arrest was linked to the paper’s recent front-page publication of the image of former President Muhammad Khatami, news reports said. Ejehi said the paper was being investigated on “non-press charges,” but did not provide further details, the reports said.

Iranian authorities have maintained a revolving-door policy for imprisoning journalists, freeing some detainees on furloughs even as they make new arrests. When CPJ conducted its annual prison census on December 1, 2011, Iran was holding 42 journalists in custody, the most in the world.

  • For more data and analysis on Iran, visit CPJ’s Iran page here.