People light a fire during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by Iran's morality police, as pictured in Tehran on September 21, 2022. (West Asia News Agency via Reuters)

In an Iran roiled by protests, journalists face a war of attrition

In mid-September, an enterprising young Iranian reporter named Niloofar Hamedi went to Tehran’s Kasra Hospital to report on a woman arrested by the county’s morality police for not properly wearing her hijab.

That woman, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, was in a coma after allegedly being beaten by police; she later died of her injuries. Hamedi, a reporter for the Tehran-based semi-reformist Shargh Daily, and Elahe Mohammadi, another female reporter, were among the first to report on Amini’s hospitalization. Now the journalists themselves are in jail, accused of spying for the United States. If formally charged and convicted, they could be executed.

Meanwhile, the nationwide protests that erupted after news of Amini’s death are continuing with a momentum that poses an increasing threat to the regime. The official response has been characteristically brutal: rights activists say hundreds have been killed and more than 18,000 detained.

Dozens of reporters are among those arrested, and the 62 known to be in custody on December 1, the day of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual prison census, have made Iran the world’s worst jailer of journalists in 2022.

The actual number of journalists arrested in the post-protest frenzy is almost certainly higher. More than 20 were released on bail before December 1, and it’s exceptionally difficult to get information about those who might yet be in custody.

Many journalists’ families have been intimidated into remaining silent, fearful that publicity may prolong the detention of their loved one. My sources inside the country were invariably afraid to speak on the record. I found that journalists’ social media accounts were often scrubbed without a trace and that even state-run news outlets like Shargh Daily, where Hamedi worked until her imprisonment, appear to have deleted articles, likely under duress. 

However, constraints on information cannot obscure some clear trends.

One is that this is a women-led revolution, fueled by their rallying cry of “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Female journalists have played a prominent role in that coverage and have been arrested in unprecedented numbers. This year, women make up almost half, or 22, of the 49 journalists in CPJ’s prison census who were picked up during the recent protests. Again, the known numbers may only be part of the picture.

Another is that Kurds are paying an especially heavy price for the unrest. Iran’s Shiite leaders have long treated Kurds, Sunni Muslims who make up roughly 10 percent of the population, as enemies within. Amini herself was Kurdish, “Woman, Life, Freedom” was originally a Kurdish revolutionary slogan, and Kurdistan province, in Western Iran, is the seat of the protest movement.

Iranian authorities are clamping down hard on the region. Witnesses have told Reuters that riot police, tanks, and paramilitary forces have been transferred to the Kurdish areas. Iran has also launched cross-border attacks on armed Iranian Kurdish groups in neighboring Iraq for alleged involvement in the demonstrations.

Kurdish journalists often highlight the Kurds’ struggle for equal rights, one which the regime would rather the world not see. Of the 62 imprisoned journalists, nine are Kurdish.

Iranian authorities also appear intent on singling out labor reporters, in particular those with the state-run Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA), which has been dutifully covering major strikes around the country. In late November, ILNA issued a statement noting the extreme pressures on the outlet as some of its reporters have been arrested and barred from working and have had their passports seized. CPJ’s prison census includes ILNA reporter Reza Asadabadi and a contributor to the outlet, Mehdi Amirpour. A third, Somayeh Masror, was released on bail ahead of CPJ’s December 1 cut-off date.

Iran’s prison conditions can only be described as deplorable. Some journalists, like my friend Yalda Moaiery, are kept in solitary confinement, in conditions I know only too well from my own experience of being detained in Tehran’s Evin Prison in 2014. The cells are tiny, there is no furniture, only a thin blanket for sleeping, the lights are turned on 24 hours a day, and there is no company but your own thoughts.

The isolation is a form of psychological torture. Those in the general wards don’t fare much better, with overcrowding and a lack of medical care raising the risk of serious illness or even death. There are also reports of women detainees being singled out for sexual assault – something Iran’s prison service denies as it threatens to prosecute those making such claims. 

Alongside threat of prosecutions, Iranian authorities are clearly in a rush to start trials and mete out speedy punishments. On December 5, the head of Iran’s judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei said hearings would begin “in a very short period of time.” On December 8, Iran said it had executed Mohsen Shekari, the first person arrested during protests to receive such a punishment. Shekari had allegedly attacked a member of the security forces. 

Shekari was convicted by the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran, where hearings should be seen as fabricated spectacles rather than legitimate legal proceedings. The so-called trials are seldom more than a plea followed by a verdict, with no evidence presented. Those accused are unable to choose their own lawyers.

For journalists who have spent weeks or sometimes months in pre-trial detention, the sentence meted out to photojournalist Ahmadreza Halabisaz may be a sign of the steep penalties they could face for their work. Halabisaz, arrested September 22 while covering protests and later released on bail, was sentenced to five years in prison and has been banned from working in journalism for two. In an Instagram post, he said that he was not allowed to hire a lawyer. “I don’t know what was wrong with my simple photos of Iran and Afghanistan, Kobani and all over the world,” he wrote. “These days, however, I have neither a job nor a medium to show my photos to the world.”

In this battle of attrition, I fear many of my colleagues may become forgotten casualties of the struggle. And without their reporting, our windows into Iran are more fogged up than ever.