A police officer is seen in Tehran, Iran, on March 26, 2020. Authorities recently convicted five press workers on false news charges. (West Asia News Agency/Ali Khara via Reuters)

Iran convicts 5 newspaper and news agency employees on false news charges

Washington, D.C., March 17, 2021 – Iranian authorities should cease prosecuting journalists on false news charges, and allow the press to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On March 14, Judge Mohammad Reza Mohammadi Kashkooli of Branch 9 of Tehran’s Media Court convicted the managing director of the state-run Fars News Agency and two of its reporters on charges of “spreading false news,” according to reports by the state-run Young Journalists’ Club and the semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency.

Also that day, Ahmad Momenirad, the spokesperson of Iran’s Media Court system, said that the same court had convicted the managing directors of the moderate semi-official Maghreb Daily and Farhang Ashti newspapers on the same charges, according to those reports.

CPJ could not immediately determine the names of the journalists or managing directors, whether they are in custody, or if they have been sentenced.

“Iranian authorities must stop secretly prosecuting journalists for their work; if authorities have any supposed evidence against members of the press, it should be revealed in open court proceedings,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “Closed door trials of unnamed journalists cannot be taken seriously. The journalists and directors of the Fars News Agency, Maghreb Daily, and Farhang Ashti should see all their charges dropped.”

The Maghreb Daily and Farhang Ashti directors were both acquitted on charges of insulting the country’s supreme leader, according to the Young Journalists’ Club. All five of the defendants are eligible for reduced sentences, according to those reports; CPJ could not determine whether they have received sentences as of today.

According to CPJ’s review of recent output by the Fars News Agency, Maghreb Daily, and Farhang Ashti, all of which are owned or closely regulated by the state, none of the outlets covered recent sensitive issues such as protests or the downing of a civilian airliner by Iranian government forces last year. The Fars News Agency is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and its operations have been targeted by the U.S. Treasury Department over those ties, according to news reports.

Under Article 698 of Iran’s penal code and Article 6 of the country’s media law, convictions for spreading false news can carry two months to two years in prison, 74 lashes, a cash fine, or any combination of those penalties, according to the official judicial news agency Mizan.

CPJ called the Fars News Agency for comment, but no one answered. CPJ could not locate contact information for the other two outlets.

CPJ called the office of the Tehran judiciary for comment, but no one answered.