As President Hassan Rouhani prepares to visit Paris on 17 November, Reporters Without Borders points out that imprisoned journalists, mass Internet surveillance and media censorship characterize the very disturbing state of freedom of information in Iran.
Dozens of journalists and netizens imprisoned Ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Iran is one of the world’s most oppressive nations for journalists and netizens. And with a total of 38 journalists and netizens are currently detained, it is also one of the world’s biggest prisons for news and information providers. Four of the detained journalists were arrested on 2 November – International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists – just two weeks before President Rouhani’s visit. These four – Afarine Chitsaz of the daily Iran, Ehssan Mandarinier, the editor of the daily Farhikhteghan, Saman Safarzai of the monthly Andisher Poya and Issa Saharkhiz, a well-known independent journalist – were arrested for allegedly being members of “an illegal network linked with the governments of the US and Britain who were active in Iranian media.” On 9 October, the journalist and documentary filmmaker Kaivan Karimi was sentenced to six years in prison and 223 lashes on a charge of insulting Islam for greeting a woman with a kiss and a handshake. He was also convicted for making a documentary about post-revolution graffiti and a video for a singer living abroad. It should not be forgotten that Iran has never ratified the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. Jason Rezaian’s 16-month-old nightmare On 17 November, Jason Rezaian, a journalist with US and Iranian dual nationality who is the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent, will have been held for a total of 483 days on a charge of “spying for a foreign power.” Revolutionary Guards in plain clothes arrested Rezaian at his Tehran home on 22 July 2014 along with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a journalist for The National, a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, and two other US citizens. Ever since his arrest, Rezaian has been mistreated in a section of Tehran’s Evin prison under Revolutionary Guard control. The main aim was to extract a confession and use it against him at his trial, which was held behind closed doors. Despite many appeals from international NGOs, he is still held. Internet surveillance Around 100 netizens have been arrested, convicted or jailed – mainly on the basis of intelligence gathered by the Revolutionary Guards – since the moderate conservative Rouhani became president on 14 June 2013. This persecution is just an extension of the unprecedented crackdown that began immediately after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in 2009, in which at least 300 journalists and netizens were the victims of arbitrary arrest, torture and long jail sentences. With more than 40 million Internet users, according to official figures, Iran is one of the region’s most connected countries. The creation of a “Halal Internet,” ordered by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has not been abandoned. It has just changed name. The focus is now on “Intelligent Filtering,” which ensures that access to the Internet and above all to social networks is selective and controlled, and that the Revolutionary Guards can continue persecuting netizens. Media censorship and self-censorship Iran’s dynamic media are under constant pressure and have to censor information that is embarrassing for the regime. If they don’t, they risk intervention by a long list of censors – including judicial officials, the intelligence ministry and the Revolutionary Guards – who harass journalists and media outlets. Whether or not they were sentenced to a post-imprisonment ban on practicing their profession, journalists are unable to work again after being released. Publishers and editors receive clear instructions not to hire them. Compliant judges and illegal courts Under article 110 of the constitution, it is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who appoints the head of the judicial system. At the same time, journalists are usually prosecuted on the basis of information provided by the Revolutionary Guards, who take their orders directly from Khamenei. What room is there for judicial independence with Khamenei controlling both the Revolutionary Guards and the head of the judicial apparatus? Furthermore, although the constitution does not permit revolutionary courts, more than 60 percent of convicted journalists and netizens were tried before revolutionary courts. Finally, most of these trials are conducted secretly although one of the provisions of article 168 of the constitution stipulates that trials of political offences and media offences should be open to the public.