Censorship and arrests as Ayatollah Montazeri is buried

Reporters Without Borders is saddened by the news that Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri died yesterday aged 87 in the religious city of Qom, 60 km south of Tehran. As tens of thousands of people defied a government ban on demonstrations in homage to this leading pro-reform figure, the authorities have been censoring national and international media.

“We offer our sincerest condolences to Ayatollah Montazeri’s family and to the Iranian people,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This man defied the regime in order to defend the truth. While close to the government in 1989, he revealed the massacre of political prisoners. Expelled from the circles of power, he continued to support the oppressed. His home was for years a refuge for the families of political prisoners, including imprisoned journalists.”

The press freedom organisation added: “While Iran mourns, the authorities are again censoring the media, including the print media, the BBC and the Internet.”

The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance yesterday issued a directive banning newspaper editors from publishing articles about Montazeri. Ministry officials went to the headquarters of newspapers yesterday evening to verify compliance. The official Fars News agency reported today that the pro-reform newspaper Andisheh-ye No (New Thought) has been closed by the Commission for Press Authorisation and Surveillance.

As with all recent events likely to prompt opposition demonstrations, the authorities also took draconian measures to control the flow of information via new-generation media. Immediately after the announcement of Montazeri’s death, Internet connections slowed right down in many cities while telephone communication was disrupted, especially in Najafābād (Montazeri’s birthplace) and Isfahan. Journalists were arrested during demonstrations in homage to Montazeri.

A BBC television programme about Montazeri was jammed yesterday shortly after it began being broadcast. It included an exclusive interview he gave to the BBC shortly before his death. It was the first time in more than 20 years that he had appeared in a TV interview. The jamming affected all the programmes carried by the Hotbird 6 satellite. It was nonetheless widely broadcast and accessible on the BBC Persian website.

Iranian journalists working for the BBC have been constantly harassed ever since the British broadcaster launched its Persian language TV station. The harassment was stepped up after the disputed 12 June presidential election and those who have not been arrested have fled the country.

Ayatollah Montazeri was one of the theoreticians of the Islamic revolution and one of the drafters if the Islamic Republic’s constitution before being sidelined in March 1989 following his revelations about the executions of large numbers of political prisoners on Ayatollah Khomeiny’s orders.

Fearing his influence and the views he expressed so forcefully, the authorities placed him under house arrest in Qom for 14 years, until 2003. His close supporters and aides were threatened and arrested on several occasions.

His website has been blocked for years in Iran and Mojtaba Lotfi, one of the site’s editors, was sentenced in November 2008 to four years in prison followed by five years of banishment on charges of anti-government propaganda and disseminating Ayatollah Montazeri’s views.

Montazeri’s death leaves a void in the pro-democracy movement and in the fight for free expression in Iran.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered on the streets of Qom yesterday to pay a final tribute of Montazeri, chanting: “We are there, we are the reason for the rebellion,” “Death to the Taliban whether in Tehran or in Kabul” and “Death to oppressors, both the Shah and the current leaders.”

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Updated on 20.01.2016