Iranian authorities arrest reporter who covered schoolgirl poisonings

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns last weekend’s arrest of Iranian journalist Ali Pourtabatabaei, one of the first reporters to cover the mysterious wave of apparent poisonings of schoolgirls in Iran. He must be released at once, RSF says.

Ali Pourtabatabaei began covering the story as soon as the first cases of poisoning by means of an unidentified gas were reported in the northeastern city of Qom at the end of November, and he was still covering it for the conservative Qom News website and on Twitter when he was arrested on 5 March.

He managed to phone his sister to tell her he had been arrested but no one knows where he is currently held. According to the independent daily newspaper Shargh, it is not yet clear who ordered his arrest or on what specific grounds.

Pourtabatabaei, who is very active on social media, criticised the lack of any reaction from the authorities in Qom to the first reported cases of poisoning. “It’s not clear what is happening in Qom or what the city’s authorities are doing,” he posted. “This is the second time secondary school students have been poisoned and have gone to hospital after inhaling toxic gases.” After his arrest, Twitter suspended his account, @kheyzaran, for “violating Twitter rules.”

“As they already did with the journalists who revealed what happened to Mahsa Amini, the Iranian authorities are trying to silence those who dare to investigate and report other stories that are embarrassing for the government,” said Jonathan Dagher, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “But it is not by arresting a journalist who provides the public with information that the origin of these cases of poisoning will be established. Ali Pourtabatabaei must be released unconditionally along with the other 30 journalists and media workers currently imprisoned in Iran. The systematic persecution of journalists who still dare to do their job must end.”

Criminal charges against editors

In the face of growing criticism of their initially non-existent and then belated response to the reports of poisonings of schoolgirls and the mounting anger of alarmed parents, the Iranian authorities now seem to be trying to control the narrative. Pourtabatabei’s arrest has been accompanied by judicial proceedings against several newspapers and a policy of withholding information from the media.

The daily Etemad reported on 7 March that the Tehran prosecutor’s office has initiated criminal proceedings against the editors of three newspapers – HamMihan, Rouydad24 and Shargh – at the behest of the head of the judicial system with the aim of “protecting the public’s mental health” and “responding to the publication of lies and rumours about the poisonings.”

And according to another Etemad report, the regional educational agencies have asked school administrators to refrain from providing the media with information about cases of students being poisoned.

At least 70 journalists have been arrested since 16 September, when a wave of protests was triggered by the young Kurdish woman Masha Amini’s death in detention. Since then, some journalists have been released under pardons with conditions attached, but a total of 31 journalists are still detained, including nine who were arrested before the protests began.

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