March 2, 2016 - Updated on April 26, 2016

Reformists surge despite obstacles to media freedom

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the renewed restraints that the authorities placed on media coverage during last week’s elections in Iran and urges President Hassan Rouhani to take advantage of the relative good results achieved by the reformists and finally begin improving respect for media freedom.

A total of 54 million Iranians had the right to vote on 26 February for a new parliament and Assembly of Experts (the 88 “experts in Islamic law” who will one day choose the next Supreme Leader). The election was fixed inasmuch as candidates not complying with “Islamic values” or “not loyal to Islam, the Islamic Republic and its leader” were vetoed in advance by the Guardian Council.

Nontheless, many Iranians yet again took advantage of the elections to vote against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s policies. Even if they did not win a parliamentary majority, Rouhani’s supporters did well, indicating that there is a desire for change, especially as regards respect for fundamental rights.

So Rouhani and his reformist and moderate allies no longer have any excuse for not releasing the 37 journalists currently in prison in Iran.

Not content with vetoing candidates, hardline authorities had complete control over the media and suppressed opposition voices. RSF points out that a free election depends on unobstructed access to independently reported news and information, and that any election that lacks this cannot be regarded as transparent and democratic.

Two months before the elections, the Revolutionary Guards conducted a preventive crackdown on the media that included arrests, closures of newspapers and intimidation of media outlets and individual journalists.

On 2 November, they arrested 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. All are still being held.

Farzad Pourmoradi, a journalist working for media outlets in the western province of Kermanshah including Kermanshah Post and Navai Vaghat, was also arrested on 2 November. Bahman Darolshafai, a former reporter for the BBC and several reformist Iranian newspapers, was arrested by plainclothesmen on 3 February Released on bail on 23 February, he is now awaiting trial.

According to the information obtained by RSF, several other journalists were summoned for questioning and some of them were detained by the intelligence section of the Revolutionary Guards.

The reporting provided by media based abroad is often the only way for Iranians to get access to alternative news coverage but this reporting is also subjected to control attempts by the authorities and to demonization and intimidation by the intelligence services.

Two weeks ago, media outlets and prominent figures that support the Supreme Leader stepped up their attacks on foreign media and, in particular, the BBC’s Persian-language section. On 17 February, Khamenei cited the BBC as an example of British meddling in the election and of the attempts by Iran’s enemies to infiltrate the election process.

Khamenei accused these media of supporting the “block the hardliners” campaign on social networks that was designed to prevent the election of his supporters. Ever since President Rouhani’s election in June 2013, many Persian-language media outlets based abroad have provided fairly favourable coverage of the Iranian government’s actions. But Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards do not tolerate uncontrolled media reporting.

In the past three months, RSF has registered ten cases of threats against Iranian exile journalists working for international media or for independent Persian-language media based abroad, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Farda, Voice of America, Radio Zamaneh and the BBC.

Several of these journalists have been the targets of direct warnings by the intelligence services or by pro-government media outlets such as Farsnews, a news agency that supports the Revolutionary Guards.

Close relatives of some of these journalists have also been summoned and questioned by intelligence officials. After being interrogated for several hours, they were told to get the journalist to “stop collaborating with enemy media,” failing which “other members of the family will be summoned and possibly arrested.”

According to the Iranian authorities, more than 100 foreign journalists were given permission to cover the elections. Some foreign reporters confirmed that it was relatively easy to get a press visa but complained of being watched by the intelligence services and about the restrictions imposed on them. In particular, they said their visa was conditioned on their hiring interpreters and fixers through a government-controlled agency.

With a total of 37 journalists and citizen-journalists currently detained, Iran is still one of the world’s five biggest prisons for media personnel and is ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.