CPJ Insider: October 2023 edition

Iran one year later: key trends from CPJ’s research

CPJ Senior Researcher Yeganeh Rezaian (left) accepts the Clooney Foundation for Justice for Women Albie Award from Julianna Margulies (right) on behalf of Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi (Yvonne Tnt/BFA.com)

In the year since Iranians took to the streets to protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested by morality police for alleged “improper” wearing of the hijab, CPJ documented the arrests of around 100 journalists swept up in a crackdown on the demonstrations.

For this issue of Insider, we are sharing an abbreviated feature by CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program that takes a closer look at some of the key trends we’re seeing for journalists affected by the crackdown. A longer version of the feature can be found here.

Journalists are being charged with crimes against the state 

Roughly 100 journalists, many of them women, are known to have been arrested in relation to their protest coverage. While most of them have been released on high bail, some have been rearrested. Authorities have charged nearly all with “spreading propaganda against the ruling system” and “colluding and acting against national security,” according to sources familiar with their cases who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. Under the Iranian penal code, propaganda convictions can carry a term of up to one year and collusion up to five years, but CPJ has learned of several journalists who were sentenced in excess of legal maximums, including extra prison time, lashes with a whip, bans on working or leaving the country, or mandatory community service.

“Without their important contribution, ordinary Iranians would not be taking to the streets to demand ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ in [Amini’s] name and calls for the clerical establishment to fall,” said Holly Dagres, an Iran analyst with the non-partisan U.S. think tank Atlantic Council, in an email to CPJ. “Their arrests ushered in the rise in repression against journalists in Iran.”

Authorities are singling out journalists for social media posts

Ehsan Pirbornash, who covers sports news for the state-run Iran Varzeshii newspaper, was arrested in October and subjected to hours of interrogation during which authorities questioned him about social media posts on X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram. He was handed printouts of his posts and forced to explain his rationale for their content, including one in which he used the word “dictator,” he told the exile media outlet IranWire. Pirbornash was released on bail and sentenced to 18 years in prison and a ban on leaving the country, but was able to flee before he was taken into custody to serve his sentence. He now lives in Germany with his family, he told IranWire.

Journalists are being legally barred from reporting

One journalist, Seyed Mostafa Jaffari, was arrested in July 2022 and sentenced to two years in prison and a two-year ban on practicing journalism. He had not yet begun serving his prison sentence in July 2023 when he was arrested again on charges of allegedly publishing false news. He has since been released on bail.

In another case, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Etemad newspaper, Behrouz Behzadi, a prominent veteran journalist, was banned from practicing journalism for one year on July 31 after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps filed a complaint against him about the newspaper’s coverage of the roots of unrest in the country, according to Human Rights Activist News Agency, an exile-run media site.

Lawyers for journalists are also under threat

Lawyers of journalists have faced harassment. Mohammad Ali Kamfirouzi, who represented Mohammadi and Hamedi, received threats in the mail and over the phone, including a letter from authorities ordering him to stop his work, according to a source with knowledge of the case who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity. Kamfirouzi was forced to drop his clients after he was arrested in December and was not able to represent them again after his release on bail the following month. Since then, Mohammadi and Hamedi’s cases have been taken up by other lawyers.

In May, Iran’s judiciary began summoning lawyers from around the country to sign a document agreeing to not accept certain clients accused of harming national security, a common charge facing journalists. In cases where lawyers are allowed to represent clients facing these charges, they cannot publicly share information about the cases. According to lawyers who spoke with CPJ on the condition of anonymity, lawyers who refuse to sign have been threatened with arrest or the revocation of their licenses.

A new generation of Iranian journalists has fled into exile

Journalists from Iran, in addition to those from Afghanistan and Nicaragua, make up the largest share of exile support from CPJ so far this year. While exiled journalists are safe from imprisonment in Iran, they face a host of new challenges abroad, including difficulties obtaining visas or finding employment. Journalists who fled to Turkey continue to live in fear, given the country’s track record of extraditing members of the Iranian press.

Iranian newsrooms have been hollowed out 

Even before the recent protests, Iran’s media struggled to report on the news. All of Iran’s news outlets are either state run or semi-independent and are heavily monitored. Now, publications face additional staffing challenges as newsroom leaders fear that allowing arrested colleagues to go back to work for could attract scrutiny by authorities, according to conversations with reporters in the country.

CPJ President Jodie Ginsberg joins panel at the Clinton Global Initiative


CPJ President Jodie Ginsberg participated in a panel discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative in September to discuss the case of detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and other journalists like him who languish behind bars simply for doing their job.

In addition to Ginsberg (second from left), the panel included Dow Jones CEO and Wall Street Journal publisher Almar Latour and Washington Post writer Jason Rezaian (right). Former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino (second from right) moderated the discussion.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the audience following the discussion. “You can’t have a democracy if you don’t have people reporting on what leaders are doing,” Clinton said, acknowledging “the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has been on the front lines for so many years.”

Click here to watch the panel, and Secretary Clinton’s remarks.

Must-read or watch

CPJ spoke with Saeede Fathi, an Iranian freelance sports reporter, who was arrested in October last year and released on bail in December. Seeking asylum in Vienna, Austria, she has continued her reporting on Iranian female athletes. “I am currently trying to learn German and improve my English and I hope to be able to be the voice of women and advocate for my colleagues in Iran,” she told CPJ in an interview detailing her harrowing confinement in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

Two new CPJ features detail how the services of private companies in the U.S. and U.K. are being used by unknown malicious actors to try to suppress online reporting from Somalia, Kosovo, Turkmenistan, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, and the Philippines. Qurium technical director Tord Lundström told CPJ that his group was able to map out distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, when internet traffic is deliberately directed at a website in order to knock it offline, but could not confirm the identities of the malicious actors: “That’s the power of DDoS. It never comes with a signature.

CPJ welcomed exiled Russian journalist Galina Timchenko, head of the independent Russian news website Meduza, to the Knight Foundation Press Freedom Center in New York following news that her phone was infected by Pegasus surveillance spyware. In a video interview with CPJ, Timchenko described the hack saying, “I felt like I was dirty or stripped in the street… But then I quickly realized that it was not my fault… On the contrary, it is my responsibility to ensure that, if possible, it doesn’t ever happen to anyone else.

CPJ in the news

India Has Killed Off the Remains of Kashmir’s Free Press,” The Nation

Press freedom in Latin America matters here,” The Dallas Morning News

Let journalists do their job in Gabon, says Committee to Protect Journalists,” News24

U.S. ambassador again visits detained WSJ reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia,” Axios

2 French journalists expelled from Morocco as tensions revive between Rabat and Paris,” The Associated Press

How a small-town feud in Kansas sent a shock through American journalism,” The Washington Post

Prigozhin is latest in line of Putin critics who met an early death,” CNN

The Right to Protest Is Under Assault. Frontline Activists Show How to Fight Back,” Just Security

Turkey’s Erdogan says he trusts Russia ‘just as much as I trust the West,’” PBS NewsHour

Mexican journalist in US wins asylum appeal, media group says,” Reuters