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May 16, 2017 - Updated on May 17, 2017

Iran’s candidates must pledge to defend media freedom, RSF says

With two days to go to the presidential and municipal elections that the Islamic Republic of Iran will hold on 19 May, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) appeals yet again to all candidates to give a clear undertaking to defend the freedom to inform.

RSF issued a series of recommendations to the candidates on the eve of the 2013 presidential election. Four years later, the same recommendations are unfortunately still valid and are still needed for media freedom in Iran.

There has been some progress, such as a fall in the frequency with which the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance suspends media outlets. But President Hassan Rouhani, who is running for reelection, did not keep his 2013 campaign promise to defend “free speech and media freedom.”

The level of media freedom is still abysmal and Iran is still one of the world’s five biggest prisons for journalists and citizen journalists, with a total of 27 detained. It is also one of the world’s biggest prisons for women journalists.


During a campaign meeting that President Rouhani gave on 15 May, his supporters chanted slogans calling for the release of political prisoners and blaming Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for their detention. “My arms don’t have enough strength on their own to solve certain problems but they will be more effective with a vote of more than 51%,” Rouhani responded.


It is true that the justice system and the Revolutionary Guards, under the Supreme Leader’s command, are responsible for most of the persecution of journalists and suppression of independent reporting. But Rouhani cannot escape his share of the blame.

As official guarantor of the Iranian constitution’s application, he could have put a stop to this unacceptable state of affairs. Rouhani’s intelligence ministry has moreover been guilty of harassing journalists and media outlets that have criticized his administration.


Unusually aggressive campaign

The campaign for this presidential election, which observers regards as crucial for the country’s future, has been marked by virulent mutual attacks among the various candidates.

Rouhani has repeatedly attacked “those who for 38 years have known only how to imprison and execute,” in allusion to his leading rival, Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric allied with the Supreme Leader.

Raisi was prosecutor general for years and is now the special prosecutor of the court for clerics, which tries crimes by members of the clergy. He was also a member of the feared commission appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1988 that passed death sentences on thousands of prisoners who refused to renounce their beliefs.


More than 29 members of the European Parliament signed a letter on 13 May calling for the release of all Iranian political prisoners, including journalists and citizen journalists. “The Iranian authorities should protect journalists and civil society actors and must allow full access to the Internet and social media platforms, in line with the use by the leadership of the Islamic Republic itself, which is fervently communicating online,” the letter says.


RSF points out that it will be impossible to regard the Iranian people as free until these demands have been met. RSF therefore urges all the candidates to undertake to:


* Seek the unconditional release of the 27 journalists and online information activists currently imprisoned in Iran.


* Overhaul Iran’s media legislation in order to protect media freedom in accordance with article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party.


* In particular, decriminalize media offences and guarantee the freedom to inform without discrimination based on language, religion or political opinion. A revision of the 1986 press law (amended in 2000 and 2009 to include online publications) is urgently needed. The law allows the authorities to verify that the media “do not endanger the Islamic Republic,” “do not insult the Supreme Leader,” and “do not disseminate false information.” Amendments that require online publications to be licensed must be repealed.


* Ensure that journalists enjoy the right to free association, including the right to form unions and to join them in order to protect their interests.


* Ensure that Iranian citizens enjoy the right to be informed and the right to free, uncensored and unmonitored Internet access. The creation of a “Halal Internet” (National Internet) designed to impose a digital apartheid constitutes a grave danger for Iran.


* End arbitrary acts and impunity. The instigators and perpetrators of the murders of dissident journalists have never been punished. The many cases include Ebrahim Zalzadeh, Majid Charif, Mohamad Mokhtari, Mohamad Jafar Pouyandeh and Pirouz Davani, all executed by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security in November and December 1988. They also include the deaths in detention of Zahra Kazemi (2003), Firat news agency reporter Ayfer Serçe (2006), blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi (2009), former Abrar Economy reporter Alireza Eftekhari (2009), journalist and women’s rights activist Haleh Sahabi (2011), Iran-e-Farda journalist Hoda Saber (2011) and blogger Sattar Beheshti (2012).


Iran is ranked 165th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.


Read the Handbook for Journalists during Elections, which contains practical advice on all aspects of news coverage during what is a very sensitive and important process in a nation’s life.