On this, World Press Freedom Day, the dubious title of “World’s Most Prolific Jailer of Journalists” is in the process of changing hands.
Turkey, the country that claimed the title for two years running, recently knocked itself out of the top spot by releasing several detainees. (Though the government then apparently tried to fudge just how many journalists remain imprisoned.) Iran, which currently has about 35 members of the press behind bars, is poised to take over first place — provided it can hold off some strong competition from China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Iran has long had a less-than-stellar record when it comes to press freedom. But when President Hassan Rouhani — a self-described moderate — came to power last year promising social reforms and a lift on the country's Twitter ban, some Iranian journalists allowed themselves to feel slightly optimistic.
That optimism subsequently faded. In the past seven months, the country’s judiciary has shut down three reformist newspapers. The moderate Ebtekar was closed last week for “spreading lies” when it ran a story on the sacking of Iran’s prison chief. Aseman was closed in February for publishing an article judged to be insulting to Islamic law, and Bahar was closed last October for a story said to question the beliefs of Shiites.
The story about the prison chief that got Ebtekar shut down actually addressed violence against imprisoned journalists — two weeks ago, at least seven members of the press, along with dozens of other people, were seriously beaten in Section 350 of Tehran's notorious Evin prison, according to opposition media and human rights groups.
“Independent journalists are under constant summonses and threats,” Morteza Kazemiana, an Iranian political journalist now living in France, tells VICE News. Kazemiana has written for a number of independent and reformist newspapers and was jailed by Iranian authorities on several occasions. “What is happening in Iran today is silence maintained through undemocratic authoritarianism and suppression of the Iranian civil society with guns, police, and military force.”
Iran has never been a great place to be a journalist, but the situation got markedly worse under Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator with CPJ. The 4,000-member Association of Iranian Journalists (AIJ) was shuttered by Ahmadinejad in 2009 — not coincidentally, the same year in which the Green Movement began and when more than 50 journalists found themselves in jail.
Siamak Ghaderi, a well-known journalist who is the subject of a CPJ campaign launched this week, has been held in Iran since July 2010; he was sentenced to four years in prison and 60 lashes for “spreading falsehoods,” “propagating against the regime,” and “creating public anxiety.” Those kinds of vague, anti-state charges are the most commonly used against journalists in Iran, Mansour says. Although others, such as “waging war against god” and “collaboration with international entities,” are also common.
For the first two days, he cried due to pain caused by several broken teeth — the result of a beating meted out when he was arrested at his home. His mouth kept filling up with blood.
Ghaderi first earned the ire of authorities when he disproved Ahmadinejad’s 2007 claim that there are no homosexuals in Iran by interviewing several for his blog. Other stories he wrote — including an article revealing atrocities committed in the notorious Kahrizak detention center — were likewise not warmly received by authorities. Ghaderi was arrested in 2009 after covering the Green Movement protests sparked by the results of that year's presidential elections, which Ahmadinejad won amid widespread irregularities.
Mohammad Davari, a winner of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award in 2010, was also jailed in 2009 after he published testimonies from detainees in Evin prison detailing torture and killings there.
Conditions in Evin are indeed appalling, says Homan Mousavi, an activist turned citizen journalist who was held there after he sent photos and videos of protests to international news organizations. When he arrived, Mousavi was placed directly into solitary confinement. He says he cried for two days due to severe pain caused by several broken teeth — the result of a beating meted out when he was arrested at his home. His mouth kept filling up with blood.
Authorities interrogated him on a daily basis. It was the same every time: He would be blindfolded, then two or three men would kick and slap him while asking about his activities, his friends, and his family.
Two hundred and eleven days later, he was hauled in front of a judge. It took all of 10 minutes for Mousavi to be sentenced to three years in prison and 74 lashes. He was not allowed a lawyer. After that, he was moved to Section 350. It was his home for two and a half years.
Mousavi received lashings alongside Ghaderi and several others. “I was first, and Siamak [Ghaderi] was third," Mousavi recalls. "They whipped me a little less because I was young. When it was Siamak’s turn, there was a lot of blood on his back, but he didn’t cry out.”
Mousavi describes Ghaderi as being “like a hero” to both himself and others in Evin. “He was very special in prison. He was very polite, sometimes very funny, but he had a lot of energy. We were depressed — we couldn’t see our family or speak on the phone — but he did a lot of talking with us, he had us stay strong."
The brutality journalists and other political prisoners experience in Iranian custody doesn’t always end with lashes. There have been a number of cases of deaths in custody as a result of torture and mistreatment. Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death in July 2003 after she was arrested photographing the families of Evin inmates outside the prison. Bloggers Omidreza Mirsayafi and Sattar Beheshti died in custody in 2009 and 2012, respectively.
Iran-e-Farda editor Hoda Saber died of a heart attack in 2011 after being “mistreated” by staff in Evin prison's infirmary while on a hunger strike. Mousavi, who talked with Saber on a daily basis during his time behind bars, says that Saber was refused medical treatment. Inmates took Saber to the hospital, but doctors allegedly discharged him after 10 minutes, claiming nothing was wrong. Saber's health declined quickly until he started having symptoms of cardiac distress. “He fainted and they took him to hospital. But this time he didn’t come back,” Mousavi says. The exact circumstances of Saber's death remain unclear.
At least 82 journalists have fled the country to avoid imprisonment since 2008, which effectively makes Iran the world's worst exiler of journalists as well.
Iran’s horrifying prison conditions are used by authorities as a threat to intimidate journalists. “They call [journalists] or make them come to the intelligence agency offices. If the journalists ignore what they want, then they persecute them in the court,” says Abdolreza Tajik, a journalist who’s been jailed many times and who was awarded Reporters Without Borders’ 2010 Press Freedom Award. He adds that security forces also employ several other coercion methods, including bribery.
At least 82 journalists have fled the country to avoid imprisonment since 2008, which effectively makes Iran the world's worst exiler of journalists as well, Mansour says.
Kazemiana is one of those journalists. In 2000, he was held in solitary confinement in the unofficial Prison 59 detention center for 130 days before spending an additional 80 days in regular cells for anti-state charges. He was not allowed to see his family or a lawyer. In 2003, he was sentenced to four years in prison. He was arrested again in December 2009 and spent 63 days in solitary confinement at Evin.
In December 2010, security officials called him in for yet another interrogation, but he’d had enough. “There was a high risk of my arrest, so I was forced to leave my country,” he says. He didn’t want to risk being picked up by border authorities, so he made a “long, dangerous, and mountainous walk in the snow” to Kurdistan. He now lives with his wife and son — they fled the country separately — in Paris.
In fact, many working Iranian journalists no longer live in Iran. Those who have been exiled often end up working for publications and websites founded by Iranians in other countries, and report for the Persian-language arms of foreign media outlets like the BBC and Voice of America.
Living abroad doesn't mean journalists escape the wrath of Iranian authorities, however. According to Mansour, the government often targets journalists' family members who are still living in the country. They're threatened, detained, prevented from traveling, and even brought up on charges. All of this is technically illegal under Iranian law.
One Iranian journalist now living abroad, who agreed to speak to VICE News as long as we didn't use his name, describes how the ministry of intelligence contacted his wife’s parents and sister on numerous occasions. (His wife is also a journalist.) Her father, he says, was summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence and told to tell his daughter to stop working for a foreign network, or “he would never be able to see her again.”
The journalist, who now works for an international news agency, says he and his colleagues cut ties with everyone they knew in Iran for the safety of their family and friends.
Smear campaigns are often conducted against journalists domestically. Pro-government news websites labeled Ghaderi a “seditionist” and said he was arrested for “immoral” acts, Mansour says. For some time, a network of blogs has run an organized campaign to defame and discredit Iranians working for foreign news organizations, often using false allegations that are especially damning in religiously conservative Iran. “If they say I sleep around with different women every night, or that I have threesomes, or that I’m an alcoholic, it would completely tarnish my face and the face of my organization in Iran,” says one journalist who asked to remain anonymous. He suspects that the campaign is run by Iranian intelligence.
As one journalist tells us, if an article or cartoon is interpreted as being disrespectful toward certain religious beliefs or figures — especially Iran’s high-ranking clerics and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — it can lead to serious trouble; he points to the shutdown of Aseman as an example. “The most important subject that can lead to a journalist being targeted is the criticism of the supreme leader as a religious and political authority,” Tajik adds.
Authorities often employ a law that states insulting the prophet, Islam, or the supreme leader is punishable with up to five years in prison. The wording of the law is vague, and as a result, journalists are sometimes wary of approaching certain topics and unable to discern what is and what isn’t off limits. “Anything can be taken as an insult, even if you don’t mean it as one,” one journalist says. “You don’t really know if what you’re writing could be interpreted by someone as questioning some member of the clergy or the supreme leader…. It's amazing how your writing is interpreted so as to get you in trouble.”
Some political issues are fair game — finding fault with parliamentary policies is usually safe — but if the criticism can in some way be traced back to a decision made by Khamenei, the government may intervene. As a result, Iran's nuclear program is a very sensitive issue for journalists, Morteza says. “The press is not allowed to discuss the issue of Iran’s nuclear program with any viewpoint other than the one belonging to the regime.”
Even if Rouhani changes course and attempts to enact the types of reforms he once claimed to want, the powerful judiciary may stand in his way. It's ultimately controlled by the supreme leader — who also has a great deal of influence over the intelligence service — and currently prosecutes members of the media virtually unchecked. Ultimately, Rouhani would have little power to sway their decisions. “We see a lot of judicial interference in the media,” Tajik says. “The judiciary can prosecute the media for whatever reason they make up.”