Journalists in Iran: Living under the sword

Evin House of Detention. Photo used under Creative Commons from sabzphoto via Flickr.com
Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Over two years ago, the Green Revolution (also known as the Persian Awakening) began in Iran on June 13, 2009. Protests broke out after a highly contested presidential election saw incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad receive 64% of the vote. Opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi denounced the results, and encouraged his supporters to protest peacefully in Tehran. As the protests grew, so did the level of violence. Iranian authorities attempted to cover up the deaths of protesters and claimed far fewer casualties than were reported by hospitals and human rights organizations.

In an effort to limit coverage of the protests, the Islamic Republic of Iran cracked down on local media, censoring news, arresting journalists and raiding or closing down offices. Foreign media was also targeted, with radio signals jammed, mobility restrictions placed on foreign journalists and several arrests. At least 24 journalists and bloggers were arrested in the first week of protests alone. On February 14, 2011, a new wave of protests began in Iran as protests and revolutions spread across the Middle East and North Africa.

In the following article, Iranian journalist Maryam Aghvami speaks to the current state of free expression in Iran. Before moving to Canada in 2001, she worked with Reuters, ARD and was a freelance journalist with The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, Die Welt and Corriera Dela Serra in Iran. Currently she is a reporter and producer with Voice of America, and a freelance journalist with CBC. Maryam was the president of the former Journalists in Exile group, which was comprised of foreign-trained journalists living in Canada and was supported by CJFE. She also served as the senior vice-president of the National Ethnic Media and Press Council of Canada.

Over thirty years have passed from the time the Islamic Republic promised social and political freedoms in Iran and vowed to convert its prisons into universities.

Since its establishment in 1979, the Islamic regime in Iran has imprisoned, tortured and killed hundreds of Iranian writers, journalists, bloggers and internet activists. The use of violence and oppression against activists who have sought freedom of press and freedom of expression has not eased since, as the world witnessed how Iranian officials severely mistreated their own citizens during the 2009 post-election protests that have come to be known worldwide as the Green Revolution. The crackdown against independent press and freedom of expression continues to this day.

The fate of journalists in the post-revolution era and after the controversial 2009 presidential elections in Iran has been one of the most heart-wrenching realities that media activists around the world have witnessed.

Systematic and organized attacks against writers and activists have become the status quo in Iran, compounded by the lack of a transparent judicial process. Iranians seeking political change face numerous threats: many are imprisoned for indeterminate lengths of time during which they may face rape, torture and months of solitary confinement. Many are left with no choice but to sign forced confessions at mock trials, where they are regularly denied access to legal representation. Iranian security and intelligence authorities, plainclothes agents as well as administrative officials, all enjoy the highest levels of impunity in the country.

Persistent mistreatment of Iranian media professionals as well as citizen journalists, bloggers and internet activists are not limited to Iran’s large cities. There are many individuals that are imprisoned in smaller cities who face an even more serious predicament because they are less well-known. These individuals often do not enjoy the attention and spotlight that other better-known journalists attract as a result of their detainment; as a result, there is a slimmer chance of their release.

One such case is that of blogger and journalist Mehdi Mahmoudian, who is now serving a five-year prison sentence at the Rajaee Shahr prison in Karaj for documenting the abuse and rape of detainees at the now-defunct Kahrizak Detention Center. When he sent a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year, he detailed torture, drug abuse and forced sex among prison inmates, among other degradations. Prison authorities transferred Mahmoudian to solitary confinement for 10 days and banned him from having visitors for three months after the letter was made public. With little international attention, it appears likely that he will serve the full five-year sentence.

The arrests and eventual release of both Iranian-American journalist Roxana Sabieri and Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari made international headlines. Sabieri spent three months in the notorious Evin Prison before her eight-year sentence for spying was reduced to a two-year suspended sentence. Bahari was also held in Evin Prison, and was detained for 118 days after he reported on the 2009 post-election protests. Both had dual citizenship, and both cases benefitted from massive international attention and advocacy campaigns, increasing pressure on Iranian authorities for their release.

Life under Censorship

Under the Islamic regime, journalists cover danger, rather than the news. Although some journalists and writers have been able to explore subtle ways of surviving the suffocating crackdown on independent media, invisible red lines and the broadening scope of banned subjects have turned Iran into a vast prison to work in.

There used to be well-understood red lines that defined how local journalists were permitted to maneuver through the coverage of political, social and economic issues, but now these implicit warning signs have disappeared, forcing some media contributors and journalists into self-imposed censorship. This is done in order not only to survive the mass closure of newspapers and independent media, but also to make ends meet in a country crippled by economic sanctions and global pressure over its government policies.

Despite the peaceful protests against the state-sponsored crackdown on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, Iranian citizens have been met with severe punishments. Civil disobedience in Iran following the 2009 elections has turned a new page in the country’s history of protest. Facing abject conditions even after their imprisonment has ended, some have found tragic ways to express their legitimate demands.

Veteran Iranian journalist and writer Siamak Pourzand’s suicide on April 29, 2011, marked the sad reality of this phenomenon. Pourzand began his long career in 1952 with the Bakhtar Emroz newspaper, and served as an American correspondent for Keyhan throughout the 1960s and 1970s. After more than a decade of imprisonment, torture, forced confessions, bans on everything from media activities to travel outside of Iran and house arrest, 81-year old Pourzand finally chose to commit suicide rather than continue his life in isolation under the sword of Iran’s top security apparatus.

While some assumed Pourzand’s death to be an isolated incident, a new form of extreme protest is taking hold among Iranian activists, writers and journalists inside Iran’s prisons - hunger strikes. In many cases, the choice to start a hunger strike is the only form of recourse left to prisoners of conscience in the country.

But it is a form of protest with a potentially tragic outcome. For political activist and journalist Reza Hoda Saber, kept in Ward 350 of Evin prison, the hunger strike cost him his life after his worsening health was continually neglected. Saber died of a heart attack after a ten-day hunger strike that he had started on June 2, 2011, to protest the death of Haleh Sahabi. Sahabi was a women’s rights activist, writer and media contributor who had also been arbitrarily imprisoned and whose cause of death has been widely disputed. Iran’s activists have not only been silenced, prosecuted and imprisoned, but also have chosen to die rather than live under the Islamic Republic’s tyranny.

One can argue that Pourzand’s suicide, Saber’s hunger strike and other cases mark a new low in one of the most tragic periods of the Iranian press in the post-1979 revolution era.

The alarming trends that Maryam describes have not made Iranian ruling clerics ease restrictions on political prisoners, peaceful demonstrations and the freedom of expression and the press. Iran continues to be one of the most restrictive countries in terms of internet and social media and is now widely recognized as the leading jailer of journalists and media workers in the world. With increasingly desperate protests on one side, and unyielding government on the other, tension continues to grow, and the only signs of hope are the perseverance and strength of Iranian journalists inside and outside the country, and the continued pressure from free expression, media and human rights organizations around the world.

Read CJFE's letter calling on the Iranian government to release all journalists currently detained in Iranian prisons.

Photo of Evin House of Detention - used under Creative Commons from sabzphoto.
Photo of Haft-e Tir Square, Iran, on June 17, 2009 - used under Creative Commons from Hamed Saber.
Photo of Maziar Bahari - used under Creative Commons from Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Photo of Haleh Sahabi and Hoda Saber - public domain photo.