In October 2018, authorities arrested Pouyan Khoshhal as he drove through the northern Iranian city of Rasht, by the Caspian Sea. The reason for the journalist’s arrest: his use of the word “death” instead of “martyrdom” to describe a Shiite saint in an article for the reformist newspaper Ebtekar.
Authorities had summoned Khoshhal on several occasions over his work, including a piece about babies born to imprisoned women. But despite Ebtekar correcting the article the following day and issuing a statement announcing that it had dismissed the journalist, authorities detained Khoshhal for two months, including 10 days in solitary confinement. When he was released on bail, guards ordered him to quit journalism and move away if “[he] wanted a quiet life,” Khoshhal said.
On December 15, 2018, the judiciary charged Khoshhal with “encouraging the public to commit crimes against Islamic values,” “insulting Islamic values,” and “insulting the divinity of Imam Hussein and other members of the Prophet's blessed family.”
Ultimately, he was sentenced to six years in prison, a verdict that Tehran’s Appeal Court upheld on July 9, 2019, with neither Khoshhal or his lawyer present. Fearing for his life and unwilling to serve such a harsh sentence over a single published word, Khoshhal said that he fled into exile.
Iran’s repressive treatment of journalists has led many to go into exile. Most independent journalists find the choices stifling: work for censored state-run outlets or risk being imprisoned for their work. After fleeing Iran, often having to cross borders illegally or slip away while on trips abroad—like Iranian state news agency journalist Amir Tohid Fazel, whose escape on a government trip to Sweden in August was reported by CNN—they are presented with new challenges including proving the threats against them when applying for asylum and being able to continue work as a journalist.
Khoshhal spoke with CPJ in November 2019 about his arrest and the hard decision to leave his family behind to seek safety in exile.
[The interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity]
What was your life as a journalist in Iran like?
I worked as a social affairs journalist in Iran for Ebtekar from September 2015 until the day I was arrested on October 24, 2018. I had a minimum of 20 articles in the paper per month, with my own byline. Also, I was in charge of putting together the social affairs page and neighborhood and crime page. After a while I was the editor of these two pages as well. I wrote pieces for several other publications, but only as a contributor. Most of them were hardline publications such as Serat News and I decided not to work with them anymore.
You were released when your family paid the bail. What will happen now that you have left the country?
My family couldn’t afford to pay my bail in cash. They had to put up the deed of my parents’ house as collateral. Most likely, now that I left the country and didn’t go to prison to serve my forced sentence, the judiciary won’t return the deed to my family, which means the government will own my parents’ house.
Did you face any limitations after you were released on bail?
I was told I couldn’t work as a journalist anymore. In the last interrogation session, I was ordered to go back to my hometown, Lahijan and get a different job and stay there. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) interrogators pressured me not to publicize that I was released on bail and said I should quietly disappear from the world of journalism if I wanted to have a quiet life. They even banned me from having a presence on social media. Because of all of these reasons I was under so much financial and psychological pressures, especially because I love writing and journalism.
Why do you think that Ebtekar fired you?
I didn’t find out about being fired by Ebtekar until my interrogator told me that it had happened. I didn’t believe it first. When I was released from the prison I saw the interview of the editor-in-chief of Ebtekar saying so in the media. I understood it. Everyone’s under pressure at such times.
What was life like when you were detained in Rasht and later Evin prison?
I don’t think good prisons exist anywhere. Wards 2A, 209 and 240 of Evin prison are some of the worst in the world. I also don’t think the situation of these wards ever improves. The IRGC runs ward 2A based on its own unwritten rules, for example blindfolding prisoners is an ironclad rule of the prison. Guards are not military personnel, instead they are chosen from among some of the least educated people, from the lowest social class of society. Prisoners are only permitted very short breaks outside and the interrogation rooms are designed to make prisoners feel scared. I could regularly hear the sound of other prisoners being tortured. Public wards are in a slightly better condition because prisoners have more control over what’s going on and there is no interrogation anymore.
Were you tortured in prison?
I have to say yes and no. Yes, because no journalists should be imprisoned simply for what they wrote. That’s a psychological torture. Also when I look at what they charged me with: only one word or one phrase. That’s unbelievable. It now makes me laugh. Threatening a journalist not to be able to do his job is torture. Threatening a journalist with his family and loved ones is a form of torture. Being detained in solitary confinement over a word is torture. Not being able to contact my family in detention is a torture. I was not permitted to contact my family for six days when I was first arrested. Seeing my mother in the court room after two months of jail was my biggest torture, she aged a lot in those two months. Hardliners in the media demanded my execution. Getting so many attacks and online harassment—again because of only one word—is very scary. But I have to also add that I wasn’t physically tortured.
How difficult was it to make the decision to go into exile?
Saying goodbye to my family was very emotional and difficult. Although I have always wanted to travel abroad to continue my education, this was a different trip. It was a very difficult decision to make. As a 29-year-old I didn’t want to spend some of the most important years of my life in jail. But with all the psychological pressures of arrests, and even when those pressures continued after I was temporarily released by the IRGC, I couldn’t tolerate that situation anymore. Also, it wasn’t clear whether they would ever let me go back to work as a journalist after [serving my sentence].
Things were more difficult than I imagined. Building a life from scratch in an unknown land isn’t easy at all. There are many challenges ahead and the most important one is to find a job as a journalist in exile, especially in our language.
Do you think your work and words will be a threat to your family in Iran?
Unfortunately, yes. All the Iran-based family members of journalists working abroad, whether in self-imposed exile or forced exile, are under severe pressure by the system, and I know me and my family won’t be exceptions. But I strongly believe I didn’t commit any crime and I just want to work as an honorable journalist and tell the truth.
I was only a journalist writing about social issues. But the ruling system’s so many unexplained red lines were designed to limit us more and more every day, both as a journalist and as a citizen. I had to constantly censor myself in my reports because there was always a government official, a ministry or a government-run organization that I knew wouldn’t like my article and would file a lawsuit. The international community is either quiet against the Iran regime’s governing of people and journalists, especially when it comes to human rights, or suffices itself with issuing a statement. I expect them to take a firmer stance and to hold the Iranian government accountable. Also, these days Iranians are suffering more under the sanctions.