Iran steps up pressure on media with arrests of at least five journalists

New York, November 4, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by news reports that Iranian authorities have recently detained at least five local journalists, including the reformist journalists Issa Saharkhiz and Ehsan Mazandarani, and reporter Saman Sarfarzaee, who were all arrested Monday.

Saham News, a website with ties to opposition leader Mehdi Karoubi who is under house arrest, reported that Iran Daily newspaper columnist Afarin Chitsaz was arrested Monday by members of the Revolutionary Guards. It is not clear if her arrest is included or in addition to the journalists whose arrests were reported by Tasnim, a news agency closely associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and Rah-e Dana news website.

According to Tasnim, Revolutionary Guards said they had arrested members of an “infiltration network” with links to “hostile Western countries.” Tasnim reported that the arrests came after months of surveillance of the network’s activities. Other than Saharkhiz, Mazandarani, and Safarzaee the other journalists arrested were not named in the news reports.

A post on the Facebook page of Saharkhiz said the freelance journalist had been arrested for “insulting the Supreme Leader,” and “propaganda against the regime.” CPJ was unable to determine who wrote the post or to resolve the discrepancy in the reasons for his arrest.

Iran is consistently one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, CPJ research shows. In December 2014, at the time of CPJ’s most recent prison census, it was holding 30 journalists in prison.

“Iran’s jails are already packed with journalists who are facing spurious charges for the simple act of voicing criticism or independent views,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “Iran must immediately release Issa Saharkhiz, Ehsan Mazandarani, Afarin Chitsaz, Saman Safarzaee, and all other journalists being held.”

In an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Saharkhiz’s son, Mehdi, denied his father had been involved in illegal activity. “Since two years ago, when my father was released from prison he has just continued giving interviews to media outlets and posts his personal opinions on Facebook. Beside these activities, he has not done anything else… the Supreme Leader has a personal vendetta against my father because he has dared to criticize him.”

Saharkhiz, who previously served as deputy minister of culture, spent four years in jail from 2009 on charges of “insulting Iranian leaders” and “propagating against the state security,” according to reports and CPJ research. He has a number of health issues, including heart problems, and spent part of his last jail sentence in hospital, according to local media.

Mazandarani, a reporter and the publisher of reformist newspaper Farhikhtegan, was arrested at his home on Monday, according to reports. After Iran’s disputed election in 2009, Mazandarni who was working for Etemad, another reformist newspaper, was arrested and held for three weeks, according to reports. Details of the charges against him in that case were not made public but, at the time, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence said most journalists who had been arrested where suspected of being “connected to foreigners.”

Safarzaee is a reporter on the international desk of the monthly magazine Andisheh Pouya, according to reports. Saham News said he had “interviewed many foreign experts and international politicians.” Details of where the reporter is being held or what charges he may face have not been reported.

Iran used espionage charges to jail Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who has been imprisoned since July 2014. In an interview with the ISNA news agency Tuesday, Leila Ahsan, Rezaian’s attorney, said she is still waiting to be notified of the verdict in his case. Also on Tuesday, ISNA quoted a judiciary official as saying Rezaian’s next court hearing is scheduled for November 16. A spokesman for Iran’s judiciary announced three weeks ago that Rezaian had been convicted, but did not specify on what charges or whether the journalist had been sentenced, the Post reported.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The text has been modified to reflect that Afarin Chitsaz is a woman.