In Iran, news coverage stifled amid election controversy

New York, May 21, 2013–Internet access has slowed, critical websites have been blocked, and several journalists have been summoned back to prison in Iran as the country’s Guardian Council made a key decision today barring two leading candidates from the presidential election. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the broad efforts to deny Iranian citizens information in the run-up to the June vote.

“By blocking websites and bringing Internet access to a crawl, Iranian authorities are saying their own citizens don’t deserve information about the election,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator. “What kind of an election is it when journalists are tossed into prison and voters are denied access to the news?”

Iran’s Guardian Council today barred two leading candidates from next month’s presidential election. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an ally of the reformist camp, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, an ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were denied participation in the election. The move is expected to cause controversy among Iranian citizens and within local and international circles.

Iranian citizens have been experiencing slower Internet access for the past few days, according to news reports. News reports citing Internet and political experts said this slowdown was a result of an attempt by Iranian authorities to prevent protests and media coverage or discussion following the Guardian Council decision.

Many Iranian citizens use Virtual Private Network (VPN) software to bypass the government’s strict Internet filter. Individuals reported today that the VPNs work only for a few minutes before disconnecting access. Thomas Erdbrink, a reporter for The New York Times, said on Twitter today that the Internet and his VPN were inaccessible.

Iranian authorities have denied interfering with Internet access, according to news reports.

At least four websites supportive of Ahmadinejad were blocked last week, according to the conservative website Meyar News. The websites–Meyar News, Roshanaei, Baharna, and Bahar Online–had reported favourably on Mashaei’s campaign. It is unclear whether the sites remain inaccessible in Iran. Meyar News was not accessible today. The semi-official IRNA reported last week that the government had filtered several websites, but did not specify which ones.

Iranian authorities have also escalated their crackdown on the press in the lead-up to the elections. Two journalists, Foad Sadeghi, editor-in-chief of news website Baztab, and Ali Ghazali, the website’s managing editor, have been arrested, according to news reports. Baztab is believed to be supportive of Rafsanjani, the candidate who was barred from elections.

News reports said Ghazali was arrested several weeks ago, but has not been heard from since. The reports said that Sadeghi was arrested today after being interrogated by the prosecutor general’s office. Authorities have not disclosed Ghazali’s whereabouts or the charges against either journalist.

At least three journalists who were released on furlough in recent months have been summoned back to prison today, according to news reports.

Bahman Ahmadi Amouee, an economics reporter with reformist newspapers, was arrested in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections and sentenced to five years and four months in prison on charges of “propagating against the regime” and “acting against national security.” Massoud Bastani, a political reporter with reformist newspapers, was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to six years in prison for “propagating against the regime and congregating and mutinying to create anarchy.” Bastani and Amouee were both released on furlough in March.

Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, a dissident blogger who has been on medical furlough since fall 2012, has been summoned to return to Evin Prison today, news reports said. Ronaghi Maleki suffers from kidney disease and bladder and prostate inflammation, and is undergoing medical treatment. He was sentenced to an additional six months in prison on charges of “threatening public hygiene through distribution of moldy bread” and “disobeying an officer.” 

Another journalist returned to Evin Prison on April 24 after his request for an extension of his medical furlough was refused, according to news reports. Mohammad Davari, CPJ’s 2010 IPFA award winner, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2010 because of his work to expose cases abuse and rape of inmates at Kahrizak Detention Center. This was Davari’s first furlough in three and a half years.