Iranians demonstrate their support for Iran's then-Supreme Leader Seyed Ali Khamenei, in the northwestern city of Ardabil in 2019. At this time, journalist Hassan Shanbehzadeh, who was recently arrested on June 6, 2024, was imprisoned for his work. (Photo: AFP)

Iranian journalist Hassan Shanbehzadeh, others imprisoned ahead of presidential election

Washington, D.C., June 11, 2024—Iranian authorities must immediately release blogger and book editor Hassan Shanbehzadeh and drop the espionage charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.

Officers with the Iranian Cyber Police arrested Shanbehzadeh on espionage charges in the northwestern city of Ardabil, in Ardabil province, on Thursday, June 6. His social media accounts were suspended.

Shanbehzadeh’s arrest followed his response posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, to Iran’s Supreme Leader Seyed Ali Khamenei. The blogger’s post, which contained only a period, was a reply to Khamenei’s post missing a period and notably received more likes and shares than the original.

The Persian service of Voice of America reported that Shanbehzadeh is currently detained in Tehran, the capital, and has been banned from hiring a legal representative.

“Once again, Iranian authorities are pressuring journalists to silence them ahead of the country’s June 28 presidential election by arresting them on spurious charges. This is a trend CPJ has documented for years,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, CPJ’s program coordinator, in New York. “CPJ calls on Iranian authorities to release Hassan Shanbehzadeh and all imprisoned journalists and ensure the media is able to freely cover this consequential election.”

Shanbehzadeh was arrested in 2019 on insult and propaganda charges for his editorial content and was held in solitary confinement. The Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced him to 5 years and 10 months in prison, and he served 10 months before receiving a pardon by the Judiciary, the London-based Farsi-language Iran International reported.

CPJ has documented a ramping up of arrests and prosecutions of Iranian journalists during a period when Iran’s Guardian Council, which oversees elections and legislation, finalized approving six candidates for the June 28 presidential election:

Several Iranian journalists were arrested and summoned for their coverage of the May 19 helicopter crash that killed Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, and several other officials:

  • Security forces arrested Mahta Sadri, the editor-in-chief of the state-run news website, in her northwest hometown of Gilan on May 25 on unspecified charges and was transferred to Lakan prison in the northern city of Rasht. She was temporarily released on bail on Sunday, June 9. According to a source who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal, Sadri was arrested for covering the officials’ death in the helicopter crash.

At least five journalists were summoned in late May to the Islamic Revolutionary Court on charges of spreading propaganda against the system for their reporting on the helicopter crash. They include:

  • Manijeh Moazen, a freelance reporter
  • Alieh Motalebzadeh, freelance photojournalist
  • Amirhossein Mosalla, editor-in-chief of online bi-weekly magazine Ayatemandegar
  • Mohammad Moeini, an independent blogger
  • Hirsh Saidian, a freelance economic journalist 

CPJ was unable to confirm further details about these cases. CPJ’s email to Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York requesting comment on the cases of imprisoned Iranian journalists did not receive any reply.

Iran was the world’s sixth-worst jailer of journalists in CPJ’s most recent annual prison census, with 17 imprisoned journalists as of December 1, 2023.