Washington, D.C., May 12, 2021 — Iranian authorities must stop imprisoning and harassing Kurdish and other minority journalists, and should allow all members of the press to cover the news freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Since May 2020, Iranian authorities have arrested dozens of activists and students in a crackdown on perceived pro-Kurdish movements in the country, according to reports. Authorities arrested at least eight Kurdish journalists during that time; three of those journalists–Navid Seyed-Mohammadi, Jafar Osafi, and Nasrullah Lashani–remain in detention today, according to news reports and sources familiar with the cases who spoke with CPJ.
“Iranian authorities’ targeting of Kurdish journalists adds a dimension of ethnic discrimination to the country’s already dire campaign to imprison members of the press,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa researcher, Justin Shilad, in New York. “Authorities should drop all vague, trumped-up charges filed against Iranian-Kurdish journalists, and release all jailed journalists immediately.”
At least four Iranian-Kurdish journalists, including Seyed-Mohammadi, Osafi, and Lashani, were jailed at the time of CPJ’s prison census on December 1, 2020, but CPJ was not aware of their cases at the time.
A lawyer representing several of the journalists, who spoke to CPJ on the condition that their name and clients not be identified, said that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was “very sensitive about Kurdish journalists and the topics they write about, especially if they write about unity of Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish Kurds, and other regional issues of Kurds.”
The lawyer added that authorities are also “sensitive every time Kurdish journalists travel to Kurdish areas of Iraq such as Erbil. They closely monitor all movements across the border and any journalists’ assembly.”
On May 14, 2020, agents of the IRGC arrested Navid Seyed-Mohammadi, a reporter for the state-run Islamic Republic Radio and Television broadcaster, in the city of Piranshahr, West Azerbaijan province, after he returned from a short trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, a person familiar with the case told CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. That person said agents raided Seyed-Mohammadi’s home without showing a search warrant.
According to a report by the exile-run Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), authorities charged Seyed-Mohammadi with “espionage for hostile states” and on August 6 sentenced him to seven years in prison. According to HRANA and the Iran-focused press freedom group JournalismIsNotACrime, he was later moved to Naqadeh Central prison to serve his sentence. CPJ could not determine whether his arrest and imprisonment were direct retribution for his reporting.
On June 7, 2020, IRGC intelligence agents arrested Jafar Osafi, who ran the religious discussion and commentary Telegram channel QandA with Sunnis, at his home in the Kurdish city of Bukan, in West Azerbaijan, according to a July 22 report by JournalismIsNotACrime.
The agents searched his house and confiscated electronic devices during the arrest, that report said. On July 20, he was transferred to Urmia Central Prison, where he remains, according to Human Rights Organization in Iran, an exile-led rights group. CPJ could not determine whether his arrest and imprisonment were direct retribution for his reporting.
Also on June 7, 2020, IRGC agents arrested Nasrullah Lashani, an independent Kurdish political reporter and commentator, after he returned from Iraqi Kurdistan, his lawyer, Kimia Korous told the Iranian Labor News Agency. Authorities detained him in Tehran’s Evin prison, and then moved him to Rajaei-Shahr Prison in Karaj province, where he remains, according to that report.
Authorities first arrested Lashani in 2013 over his coverage of that year’s presidential election, and in 2016 he began a six-year prison sentence after being convicted of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “colluding against national security,” according to news reports. He was eligible for early release in 2019, and since then authorities repeatedly permitted Lashani to leave prison on furlough, his lawyer said.
His lawyer told the news agency that Lashani’s current detention is on new charges relating to his writing and crossing the Iraqi border. Lashani has published multiple articles during his furlough periods, including one from May 2020 favorably comparing Iraq’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic to Iran’s.
At least five other Iranian-Kurdish journalists served jail terms in 2020 and 2021 that CPJ was not aware of at the time, but have since been released:
- On June 23, 2020, IRGC intelligence agents arrested Zakaria Rasoulpour, who ran the Telegram channel Behind The Curtain, which covered alleged local corruption, in Bukan, West Azerbaijan province, according to a report by the Iraqi-Kurdish human rights organization Hengaw and a source familiar with his case who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity. Agents later searched his home, his office, and his parents’ house, and confiscated his laptop and phone, those sources said, adding that Rasoulpour was released on bail after three weeks.
- On September 20, 2020, Arsalan Hedayati, a political commentator who contributes to several Kurdish news websites, began serving a jail sentence at Dizel Abad Prison, and was released on October 26, according to HRANA, which stated that he was released on the condition that he return to the prison for the following 10 days to clean it. Authorities initially arrested Hedayati on July 5, 2018, and charged him with “acting against national security” and “forming a group to disturb public order,” according to Hengaw. He was initially sentenced to nine months in prison, which was reduced to four months on appeal, and he was released early, those reports said.
- On November 23, 2020, IRGC agents arrested Dariush Moradi, an independent Kurdish journalist who writes political commentary for the Kurdish-language cultural and literary website Hesareh, at his home in the city of Isalamabad-e-Gharb in Kermanshah province, according to multiple reports by HRANA. Agents confiscated his cell phone, laptop, and books and took him to an undisclosed location, and then released him on December 7, according to those reports, which said that the journalist appeared in court on February 18, 2021, but did not disclose any charges filed against him.
- On January 30, 2021, Mosafa Bagheri-Ashna, the social and cultural editor of Rigakurdistan.ir, the official state-run website and Telegram channel of the region of Iranian Kurdistan, began a jail sentence at Kermanshah Central Prison which he served until February 23, according to HRANA. Authorities first arrested Bagheri-Ashna along with Hedayati on July 5, 2018, and in June 2020 charged him with “acting against national security” and “forming a group to disturb public order” and sentenced him to nine months in prison, which was reduced to four months on appeal, and he was released early, according to news reports.
- On January 31, 2021, independent Kurdish journalist Ardeshir Mousavi began a jail sentence in Dizel Abad Prison, which he served until March 16, following the rejection of his appeal in a 2018 case by Branch 18 of Kermanshah’s Appeals Court, according to HRANA. IRGC agents initially arrested Mousavi along with Hedayati and Bagheri-Ashna on July 5, 2018, and later charged and convicted him of “acting against national security” and “forming a group to disturb public order” in relation to his writing on Kurdish political and human rights issues, according to Hengaw. He was initially sentenced to 9 months in prison, which was reduced to four months on appeal, and he was released early, those reports said.
CPJ emailed Alireza Miryousefi, the head of the media office at Iran’s Mission to the United Nations, for comment, but did not receive any response.
CPJ was unable to locate contact information for these journalists or for their family members.