News outlets targeted in Iran amid run-up to elections

New York, June 10, 2013–The Iranian government is attempting to deprive Iranian citizens of meaningful news coverage by blocking several news websites in the run-up to the country’s presidential elections on Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

“These latest examples of censorship show that all journalists, irrespective of their political views, are unable to work freely in Iran,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “The biggest losers in this, however, are ordinary Iranians who have little access to independent or critical reporting.”

In May, Iran’s Guardian Council barred more than 600 candidates from running in the presidential election, including reformist former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and President Ahmadinejad’s ally, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Six of the eight candidates allowed to run belong to different factions of the conservative camp, all stridently competing for power. In this struggle, media outlets affiliated with the different camps have become targets.

The Criminal Content Work Group, a committee comprised of several ministry officials to police online content, shut down the conservative Serat News website on May 24, saying the website had violated Iranian election law for allowing readers to post comments on the website that said they would not vote in this week’s presidential election because of their dislike for the candidates, the semi-official ISNA News Agency reported.

Articles 74 and 91 of the Presidential Election Law prohibit publishing negative content against candidates, with punishment including flogging and shutting down the publication for up to three months, ISNA reported. Article 698 of the Islamic Penal Code punishes the “publication of false information” with up to two years’ imprisonment or 74 lashes.

The work group also ordered Internet service providers to block the semi-official Mehr News Agency after it published on June 3 an interview with Serat‘s managing editor in which he criticized the decision, according to news reports. ISPs have not yet blocked the semi-official agency’s site.

The blocking order has caused controversy within conservative ranks. Ali Motahari, member of the Iranian parliament’s Press Oversight Committee, criticized the blocking of Serat News as “illegal” because he said the work group did not have the authority to shut down a licensed press outlet, and the ban was not reviewed by a press jury, the reports said.

The blocking of Serat News came amid legal and political pressure on several newspapers by Motahari’s committee. On May 27, the Press Oversight Committee issued warnings to Shahrvand, Iran, Haft-e-Sobh, and Mardomsalari newspapers for allegedly violating Article 6 of the Press Law, which bans the publication of news items that are seen to promote heretical material, social discord, and libel, among other violations, ISNA reported. It is not clear what specific provisions of Article 6 these newspapers had allegedly violated. The publications were all either pro-Ahmadinejad or reformist outlets.

The Tehran Penal Court also banned the state-owned Iran Newspaper on June 2 for six months for alleged “false reporting,” according to Mehr News and Fars News Agency. The reports did not say what articles had triggered the ban. The paper will continue operating pending an appeal. In addition, the opposition website JARAS reported that Mardomsalari‘s website was blocked on May 22 for unknown reasons. It is not clear who ordered the block.

CPJ had reported that four news websites affiliated with President Ahmadinejad–Meyar News, Roshanaei, Baharna, and Bahar Online–were also blocked three weeks ago. It is unclear whether the sites remain inaccessible.

Independent and opposition voices also remain under threat in Iran. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on June 7 that its Farsi-language service, Radio Farda, had documented nine cases in May in which family members of their staff had been harassed by the Iranian government.

Ahmad Zaid-Abadi was summoned to return to prison on May 27, according to news reports. Zaid-Abadi, who wrote a weekly column for the reformist Rooz Online, was arrested in June 2009 and sentenced to six years imprisonment on vague anti-state charges.

It is not clear when Zaid-Abadi was released on furlough, but as of April 15, he was one of at least 40 journalists held in Iranian prison, according to CPJ’s latest special report on Iran. At least four other Iranian journalists have been summoned back to prison since late April, according to CPJ research.

  • For more information and analysis, see CPJ’s Iran page.