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IFEX members spearhead campaign to release imprisoned Iranian journalists

A coalition of IFEX members launched a campaign last week on the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution, to pressure the government of Iran to release journalists and activists imprisoned for exercising their right to free expression. The "Our Society Will Be a Free Society" campaign is named for a pledge that Ayatollah Khomenei made during the 1979 Iranian Revolution to protect freedom of expression and the press.

But in the last 31 years, thousands of newspapers have been shut down, hundreds of journalists arrested and hundreds more sentenced to long prison terms, and dozens executed. In the days leading up to the anniversary, in an effort to stop opposition protests and control the flow of information in and out of the country, authorities suspended Google Mail (saying they would soon create a national email service), blocked text messaging, slowed connectivity to the Internet and arrested several journalists, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Meanwhile, foreign journalists were invited to Iran to cover pro-government celebrations, says RSF.

The coalition is a joint initiative of CPJ, RSF, International PEN, PEN American Center, English PEN, Index on Censorship, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and the International Publishers Association (IPA). It is acting out of "a sense of shared, urgent concern for the welfare of journalists, writers and bloggers and a profound alarm over the situation for free expression in Iran." The campaign runs up to 20 March, the Iranian New Year, with events aimed at increasing pressure for the release of writers and journalists in prison. It then continues in North America and Europe through the spring. The group is also urging world leaders to apply pressure on Iran to release jailed dissidents. Some of the most distinguished journalists and leading bloggers are behind bars.

In an open letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the coalition asks him to respect the spirit of the 1979 revolution to "protect human rights and celebrate the Iranian people's freedom of expression" by releasing the more than 60 writers, journalists and bloggers in prison. "This list constitutes the largest number of our colleagues jailed by any country on earth at one time in over a decade," says the letter.

In an op-ed published on 10 February in the "International Herald Tribune" and addressed to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iranian-Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker Maziar Bahari, who is working with the coalition, said: "The only accusation against many reporters who are languishing in Iranian jails at the moment is that they held a mirror to the actions of the Iranian government. They did not want to overthrow it. They never took up arms. All of them did their job as peacefully as journalists elsewhere around the world." Bahari was arrested while reporting on demonstrations in Tehran in the aftermath of the disputed June 2009 election. He also says, "I was unfortunate enough to know firsthand how your agents treat journalists. I was kept in your jail for 118 days simply for being a reporter. For much of that time I was tortured."

The Human Rights Council of the United Nations met on 15 February to examine Iran's human rights record. The Council has "more than 200 reports documenting the arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions and torture, often for the purposes of extracting false confessions, of intellectuals, students, artists, human rights defenders, journalists and others after the disputed presidential elections last year," says the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC).

"The countries that say nothing about the bloody crackdown that has been taking place in Iran for the past eight months are accomplices to these crimes," RSF said. "When the UN Human Rights Council conducts its Universal Periodic Review of Iran, it must show that it is up to the task."

On 17 February, the coalition called for UN special rapporteurs to be sent to Iran. UN human rights experts have already brought attention to the mass arrests and abuse of dissidents, said Index on Censorship, "but independent investigation on the ground is crucial."

Iranian human rights organisations and activists and international labour groups protested outside UN offices in Geneva this week, demanding the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners, reports the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Two weeks ago, IFJ participated in a meeting at the European Parliament on "Human, Journalists and Trade-Union Rights in Iran: the New State of Emergency." The group is calling for the reopening of the Iranian Association of Journalists (AoIJ).

Sign a petition to free Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American scholar sentenced in August 2009 to 15 years in prison after a mass trial of 140 activists, intellectuals and writers. Please visit: Free Kian ( http://www.freekian09.org/tag/our-society-will-be-a-free-society/ )


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