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As election nears, Iran's journalists are in chains

Journalists imprisoned in Iran, December 2000-April 2013
Journalists imprisoned in Iran, December 2000-April 2013

CPJ's annual worldwide consensus

Iranian authorities are holding at least 40 journalists in prison as the June presidential election approaches, the second-highest total in the world and a figure that reflects the government's continuing determination to silence independent coverage of public affairs, a new analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists has found.

CPJ's census of journalists imprisoned on April 15 also highlights the severe deterioration of freedom of expression in Iran over time. In December 2004, during the last full year of President Mohammad Khatami's tenure, CPJ documented just one journalist in prison during its annual worldwide prison census. By December 2009, after a contested presidential election returned Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to office, the number had grown to 23 in CPJ's annual census. CPJ surveys since that time have consistently shown 35 to 50 journalists in prison in Iran at any given time.

Only Turkey, with 48 in jail, was detaining more journalists on April 15, CPJ research shows.

As devastating as the imprisonments are to the individual journalists and their families, the Iranian government's tactics have had an intimidating effect on the press, choking off the flow of information. This census and CPJ's past surveys are simply snapshots in time—they do not include the large numbers of journalists convicted of crimes or facing charges who are temporarily free on bail or furlough. Iran has pursued a revolving-door policy in imprisoning journalists, freeing some detainees on short-term furloughs even as they make new arrests. The pattern of rotating critical journalists in and out of prison has sown fear and self-censorship across the entire press corps, according to CPJ research. At least 68 Iranian journalists fled into exile between 2007 and 2012 due to harassment and the threat of imprisonment, according to CPJ research. Only Somali journalists have gone into exile in higher numbers during that period.

The Iranian government has used several other tactics to intimidate journalists. Authorities have blocked millions of websites, banned reformist publications, and conducted widespread electronic surveillance in an effort to make a wide range of topics off-limits to public debate. “Many of the topics we could cover five years ago, like cultural issues, we couldn't do anymore,” Omid Memarian, an exiled Iranian journalist, told CPJ. “Journalists were even prevented from covering the earthquake relief efforts that happened in Iran last year.”

In 2013, as the Iranian government began a new wave of detentions aimed at silencing journalists ahead of the elections, Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi announced that 600 Iranian journalists were part of an anti-state network. He said the arrests were an attempt to "prevent the emergence of sedition prior to the elections."

Farideh Farhi, a member of the graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii who has written extensively about Iran, said the arrests are part of a concerted effort by Iranian authorities to break the links between reporters inside Iran and their Farsi-speaking counterparts abroad. In the 2009 election, poll observers representing the candidates passed on reports of fraud to local reporters who then relayed the information to colleagues outside the country. This chain of information may be broken for this year's vote, Farhi suspects. “The intent,” she said, “is to make sure that reporters inside Iran will hesitate to answer their phones or Skype when Persian-speaking reporters based outside of Iran call to figure out what's going on.”

Authorities also place intense pressure on the families of jailed writers and editors. One Iranian journalist, Massoud Lavasani, who fled the country after being imprisoned and tortured for two years, told CPJ that his wife, Fatemeh Kheradmand, a journalist still living in Iran, is now the sole caretaker of their child. She was summoned by authorities for questioning recently. He said he fears that she will be arrested soon and asked: “What would happen to our child now?”

CPJ research shows that journalists imprisoned in Iran are routinely subject to abusive treatment, including floggings, extended periods of solitary confinement, and denial of family visits and medical care. Here are other trends and details that emerged in CPJ's analysis:

  • Sixty-five percent of journalists are being held at Evin Prison in Tehran. A number of them, including Hossein Derakhshan and Saeed Madani, have reported being tortured and coerced into making false confessions. At least two journalists in the past four years have died from severe abuse at Evin Prison: Omidreza Mirsayafi in 2009 and Sattar Beheshti in 2012. A third journalist, Hoda Saber, died of a heart attack at Evin Prison in 2011 after enduring harsh treatment.
  • Most of the charges were based on the journalists’ critical views of the Iranian government. Eighteen faced charges of “spreading propaganda against the state”; eight for “acting against national security”; three for “insulting the Supreme Leader”; one for “insulting the president”; one for espionage in connection with Israel; and one for “waging war against God.” At least eight jailed journalists had not been informed of the charges against them.
  • At least eight journalists behind bars have waged hunger strikes to protest their harsh conditions and abusive treatment. At least 13 have been placed in solitary confinement. One critical blogger, Mehdi Khazali, has waged several hunger strikes in prison to protest his sentence of 14 years in jail and 90 lashes on charges of “insulting the supreme leader.” Khazali has been held in solitary confinement for extended periods and his health has deteriorated, according to his son.
  • Several journalists have been detained in prisons far away from their homes, a tactic used to punish journalists’ families. For example, at least nine journalists included in the census, all of whom are affiliated with the Gonabadi dervishes minority group in the city of Shiraz, are being held in Evin Prison, despite their arrest in the town of Kavar, more than 600 miles away.

Iranian blogger Sattar Beheshti died from abuse suffered in Evin Prison. In the video below, produced by IranWire in cooperation with CPJ, Beheshti's mother describes the anguish she has endured and asks for support for all the other journalists and political prisoners being held in Iran.

Read the capsule reports on each journalist jailed in Iran as of April 15, when CPJ's census was conducted.

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