This article originally appeared on ARTICLE 19's Azad Tribune on 2 October 2014:
By Afsaneh Rigot
This week has been eventful in Iran. With all that has been going on in the tormented realms of written and spoken word, came further indication that the diminishing right to free expression will not be seeing better days.
In an interview with CNN's Christian Amanpour, President Hassan Rouhani gave a short and bizarre response to a question in regards to imprisoned journalists in Iran. After promising to release political prisoners and journalists in his election campaign, Rouhani's tone changed; in the interview his answer was simply that he does not “believe that an individual would be detained or put in prison for being a journalist.”
Journalist Fereshteh Ghazi, along with numerous others who have been monitoring the situation of political prisoners in Iran, responded to Rouhani with a question: “If no journalists jailed in Iran, why did you promise their release?”
For a recent article she wrote, Ghazi visited the families of imprisoned journalists Masoud Bastani, Bahman Ahmadi Amouei and Reyhaneh Tabatabaee to confirm the reason for which their loved ones were imprisoned.
Of course the answer she was given was as expected – they were imprisoned for their journalism. Ghazi notes that Tabatabaee's mother had been just as shocked about Rouhani's obscure comment. Her heart-warming answer in Ghazi's article, in which she still stands by Rouhani, shines a light into the confusing state most have been left in after his statements:
“We certainly expected more from him. I was shocked. Even if he wanted to evade the question, he could have given a more diplomatic answer…. The day they arrested Reyhaneh and took her to prison I told you that the perpetrators wanted to blame Rouhani and weaken him, even though the arrest had nothing to do with him. I stand by my answer and still defend Mr. Rouhani, but I was still shocked and heartbroken to hear his response…. Reyhaneh was a journalist and is in prison for her journalism.”
"If no journalists jailed in Iran, why did you promise their release?" - Journalist Fereshteh Ghazi
Tabatabaee was in fact imprisoned during Rouhani's presidency, but regardless many had still looked to him for glimmers of hope when it came to freedom of expression. What makes Rouhani's claim more disappointing is the fact that 25 of the 73 Iranian journalists currently in prison were actually arrested in Rouhani's first year as president.
IranWire has also made a series to document the journalistic prisoners of conscience, which you can find here. These comments have led to parallels being drawn between Rouhani's presidency and his predecessor's, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During his reign, Ahmadinejad had shocked the world by claiming that there were no gays in Iran, a claim that was obviously superfluous and false; Rouhani's comment is singing to the same tune and using the same script template.
When questioned about the status of journalist Jason Rezaian and his wife, Iranian journalist Yeganeh Salehi -- during a forum sponsored by the New America Foundation in New York -- a similarly vague response was given.
He did not reveal the charges under which the journalists were being held or whether he would help speed up their legal proceedings. The answer was just curt, without even mentioning any names: “The individual who you name is being investigated. He is in detention being investigated. During this time a multitude of things can change … At a time when a file, a case, is being built and the prosecutor is working hard to send that case file to the appropriate court,” continuing that it would be inappropriate to discuss these charges. Their charges will apparently be announced when their files have been referred to the court. However, it could be interpreted that Rouhani did in a way indicate that he would weigh in on the case. The Washington Post notes that Rouhani had highlighted the fact that the executive branch of the government, that he is the head of, is able to inquire about the detention of certain persons.
In the same forum the President also denied knowledge of the “Happy Dancers” who were arrested for the video they produced of themselves dancing to Pharrell William's 'Happy' song. Rouhani responded, “I'm not certain what this thing you're referring to was, how many people danced.”
The group that Rouhani has no recollection of have been sentenced to “91 lashes and six months in jail” for participating in and making the video, although their sentence has been suspended for “three years contingent on good behaviour”. Although denying knowledge of the case, Rouhani was seen as indirectly referring to the case, when news broke out about their arrest, by tweeting: “#Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.” Again his denial of knowledge of the case is a worrying step backwards for the promises he had said he would deliver on.
During the same time, the free expression rights of those residing in Iran took many hard and devastating blows. News of Mohsen Amiraslani's execution on 24 September still makes some people tremble. The Guardian's current report on the hanging highlights the lack of proper judicial proceedings and the arbitrary nature of Amiraslani's conviction. Similar dismay with the Iranian political and legal system, which limits access to journalists, is seen with the unruly death sentence of Reyhaneh Jabbari, 26, who was arrested in 2007 for the killing of Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi -- a former employee of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence – even though it was in self-defence after he had sexually abused her. (Her sentence was, however, postponed for 10 days on Tuesday after overwhelming online pressure.)
In the same week as Amiraslani's execution, 11 individuals were arrested for sending “insulting SMS text messages” about Ayatollah Khomeini in the southern province of Shiraz. Al-Arabia quotes the provincial Revolutionary Guards Chief General Esmail Mohebipour as saying that the arrests came “after monitoring social network applications on mobile applications like WhatsApp, Viber, Line and Tango,” he further goes on to state: "They recognized the error of their ways," in Haft e-Sobh daily.
This dismay is not lost on the political prisoners from minority religious groups. On 28 September around 1,000 of Iran's Gonabadi dervishes went on to protest outside the Ministry of Justice building in Tehran for the “poor treatment of dervish political prisoners and a “news boycott” by domestic media.” This was subsequent to a protest on 21 September which ended with many protestors being attacked by security officials. Reports came out that on 1 October, hundreds of Gonabadi dervishes were arrested as they made their way to protest the hostility they were met with on 21 September.
There has been increasing pressure from the authorities on dervishes over the last years leading to their arrests in many prominent cities of Iran. Farhad Nouri, an administrator of Majzooban Nour (which publishes news about Gonabadi dervishes), was quoted as saying, “the pressure on dervishes is such that they are all living in a big prison. This is why they decided to spontaneously and peacefully migrate to Evin”. This relates to a campaign, joined by over 2,000 dervishes, which is aptly titled “Migration to Evin Prison”, demanding the rights of dervishes to be respected or have all dervishes arrested. One wonders if, when asked, Rouhani will deny the existence of any peril for them too?