Iran arrests journalist covering acid attacks on women

New York, October 29, 2014–Iranian authorities have detained for almost a week a journalist affiliated with the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), a media outlet that has covered a series of acid attacks on women in the country, according to news reports. Four other staff members affiliated with the agency were arrested on Monday and have been released, the reports said.

This month, more than half a dozen women have been attacked with acid, leading to protests in the cities of Isfahan and Tehran and stirring debate in Iran over women’s rights, Islamic values, rule of law, and government accountability, news reports said.

On October 19, ISNA published a report entitled “Isfahan’s Acid Climate” that criticized the government for its failure to crack down on the perpetrators as it had on women who had not adhered to the dress code. ISNA’s coverage also included ways to deal with acid burns and interviews with families of the victims and women from Isfahan.

Hardline government officials said the media was attempting to unfairly influence the debate over a parliamentary bill that would empower morality vigilantes to enforce the government’s interpretation of Islamic values on the street.

Police arrested Aria Jafari, a photojournalist who contributed photos to ISNA, on Thursday, one day after he covered protests in Isfahan calling for justice for women targeted in acid attacks, news reports said. His photos were picked up by Agence France-Presse and Getty Images.

Some news reports said Jafari is ISNA’s head of photo services in Isfahan, but in a statement on Tuesday, ISNA said Jafari worked as a freelancer and that the station would address his case through “legal channels.” No official charges have been filed against him, according to reports.

“The arrest of a journalist working with ISNA shows that it doesn’t matter who you work for in Iran–if you step out of line, your next step might be into a jail cell,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, Sherif Mansour. “We call on authorities to release Aria Jafari immediately and allow journalists to report freely on issues of public interest, which include these acid attacks.”

Four journalists and staff members affiliated with ISNA were arrested on Monday, according to the BBC. Two employees, who were not identified in the reports, were released the same day, but ISNA’s editor-in-chief in Isfahan, Zahra Mohammadi, and social issues editor Sanam Farsi were detained until today, the reports said.

ISNA’s statement on Tuesday did not mention these arrests, but said it did not endorse any statements about its “ISNA colleagues,” and rejected any attempts to use Jafari’s arrest for anti-state purposes.

According to the Iran Wire news website, ISNA received a letter on October 23 from the Supreme National Security Council, a body nominally chaired by the president and effectively controlled by the Supreme Leader, that warned the outlet against continuing to associate the acid attacks with failure to adhere to the female dress code.

Isfahan parliamentary member Hasan Kamran said Iran’s press supervisory board would investigate media outlets that “make headlines out of false reports to make our enemies happy,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported citing the local Tasnim News Agency. The conservative Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, who leads Friday prayers in Tehran, called for the prosecution of any media outlets found to be lying about the Islamic Republic, news reports said.