President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected with 63 per cent of the vote on 12 June 2009. Everything was planned in advance except for a wave of demonstrations that was without precedent since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The streets of the main cities were filled with people chanting “What happened to my vote?” and “Liar.”
The authorities responded with a vast operation to silence the political protests, using a skilfully devised repressive strategy, the stages of which Reporters Without Borders will now try to describe.
By disrupting the means of communication and relentlessly controlling the dissemination of photos and video footage, the authorities sought to undermine the demonstrations and prevent the opposition from reinforcing its cohesion and popular legitimacy.
The Revolutionary Guards ensured that opposition leaders were denied access to the media by closing newspapers and arresting journalists. Cut off from any international support once the foreign correspondents had been expelled, the opposition then had to face a war of attrition by the regime.
Imprisoned, tortured, charged vast bail amounts that drove families deep into debt, subjected to social and professional exclusion and hounded into exile – en entire profession of journalists, political observers and social activists that had developed in recent years, an essential part of the country’s intellectual life, has been eradicated by the regime.
- At least 170 journalists and bloggers, including 32 women, have been arrested in the past year. - 22 of them have sentenced to jail terms totalling 135 years.
- 85 journalists are awaiting trial or sentencing.
- The amounts of bail that have been paid to obtain release total about 4 million euros (5.23 billion toman).
- More than 100 journalists have been forced to flee the country.
- 23 newspapers have been shut down and thousands of web pages have been blocked.
- With 37 journalists and bloggers currently held, Iran is one of the world’s four biggest prisons for the media, alongside Cuba, Eritrea and North Korea.
Elections result announced
The authorities imposed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the first round by force. Tehran prosecutor general Said Mortazavi sent the pro-opposition newspapers a note on the evening of 11 June 2009 warning them not to print front pages proclaiming their candidate’s victory. But the state-owned media reported nothing but President Ahmadinejad’s victory. Four of the leading reformist newspapers were prevented from criticising the official results or were closed down altogether. Distribution of Kalameh Sabaz, a newspaper owned by leading opposition candidate Mirhossein Moussavi, was blocked. It has not appeared at all since 13 June.
A dozen journalists who are well-known throughout the country, including Ahmad Zeydabadi, Kivan Samimi Behbani and Shiva Nazar Ahari, were arrested the day after the results were announced, on 13 June. They were given long jail sentences and are still being held.
The security services stationed themselves inside the newspapers, controlling articles and censoring content. Mehdi Karoubi, one of the opposition candidates, reported on 16 June: “I cannot even publish my press releases in my newspaper, Etemad Meli.” The newspaper was closed down on 17 August for publishing reports about cases of rape inside prisons. Before closing, it left columns blank where the censors had cut articles.
Another of the regime’s responses to the protests against its historic election theft was to weaken the communication networks. The authorities cut the SMS network and slowed down the Internet two days before the presidential election. They systematically cut the mobile phone networks in the centre of the main cities whenever protests were held in June and July. The speed of Internet connections was also reined in.
The effectiveness of this procedure should not be overstated. It failed to prevent the marches and protests. During demonstrations, information about the date, hour and place of the next one was passed from person to person, as it was during the 1979 revolution.
Street newspapers and leaflets survived and continued to play a mobilising role during the summer and part of the autumn of 2009. The Internet and especially the social-networking website Twitter, of which so much was said during the summer of 2009 about its use as an opposition communication tool, played a key role internationally. But only 2 per cent of Iranians were able to use Twitter.
Pro-reform websites silenced
The authorities can block the Internet because they control the telecommunications infrastructure directly and Internet Service Providers indirectly. A dozen or so opposition websites were censored. They include Entekhab (http://www.entekhab.ir/), which has been inaccessible since 11 June, Ayandenews, Teribon, the reformist sites Khordadeno, Aftabnews and Ghalamesabz, Norooznews, which is the news website of the reformist (pro-Moussavi) Islamic Participation Party, and Ghalamsima, a site that supports the Moussavi campaign.
The women’s rights website Change for Equality was blocked for the about the 20th time. YouTube and Facebook were hard to access. Gmail was inaccessible. Instant messaging could still be accessed using censorship circumvention tools (proxies).
On the eve of the demonstration marking the Islamic Revolution’s 31st anniversary, on 9 February, Internet connections were again slowed right down in several cities, as they had been in advance of all the dates that were likely to have prompted opposition protests. Many websites such as Radio Zamaneh’s were attacked by the “Cyber-army,” a group of hackers who work for the Revolutionary Guards.
War on images
The crackdown continued on two fronts – the censorship of photos and video and the expulsion of foreign reporters. While claiming that the president had won by a “landslide,” the regime tried to suppress all photos and video of the population’s spontaneous demonstrations, which had left it deeply shaken. Photographers were particularly targeted. Mehdi Zabouli, Tohid Bighi, Satyar Emami, Majid Saidi and many others were arrested between 26 June and 14 July. The priority was to hide the scale of the protests.
The Revolutionary Guards went after foreign reporters, denying them access to the protest marches. Mohammad Sfar Harandi, the minister of culture and Islamic orientation, announced on 16 June that the foreign media were banned from “participating in or covering gatherings organised without the interior ministry’s permission.”
The foreign reporters were confined to their hotel rooms or homes for several days and then deported one by one. Yolanda Alvarez, who had been sent to Tehran by the Spanish broadcaster RTVE, was expelled along with her entire crew on 15 June. Iason Athanasiadis, a journalist with Greek and British dual nationality who worked for various media including the Washington Times, a France 3 TV crew, Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, the BBC’s well-known correspondent John Leyne and many others all followed.
Propaganda and demonization of foreign media
A propaganda campaign completed this phase. Foreign journalists were accused of being spies in the pay of the United States. The confessions of detainees were broadcast on national TV stations. The authorities responded virtually point by point to opposition claims about the use of violence to disperse protests. Interviewees contradicted accounts of the death of demonstrators, including that of the young student Taraneh Mousavi. The state television poured scorn on opposition eye-witness accounts.
The Revolutionary Guards website showed photos of the demonstrations with close-ups of the participants, inviting Internet users to identify them. A Centre for the Surveillance of Crimes set up by the Revolutionary Guards issued a communiqué on 17 June instructing website editors to suppress “content encouraging the population to riot or to spread threats or rumours.”
The communiqué said there had been “several cases of websites and personal blogs posting articles inciting disturbance of public order and inviting the population to rebel.” It added: “These sites, created with the help of US and Canadian companies, receive the support of media such as the BBC, Radio Farda (Free Europe) and Radio Zamaneh, which are protected by the US and British security services.”
Imprisonment, bail and exile
The regime launched an offensive against print media in the middle of the summer, rounding up journalists. Many publications were closed, including Sarmayeh and Etemad. On 20 July, exactly one month after the election, Iran became the world’s biggest prison for journalists, with a total of 40 held.
The journalists were given unfair trials, with no right of defence, sentenced to imprisonment and then put in cells with ordinary offenders who, were encouraged by the authorities to rough them up. The mistreatment sometime included severe beatings and even rape, regardless of whether the prisoners were men or women.
Torture is systematic in Section 2A1 of Tehran’s Evin prison, which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards and is exempt from any external supervision. And it is common in Section 2009, which is under the charge of the Ministry of Intelligence.
To release detained journalists, the authorities demanded exorbitant bail amounts that forced families to borrow heavily. And they drew up blacklists of journalists that newspapers were forbidden to rehire, the posts left vacant being gradually filled by members of the Revolutionary Guards.
Reports began to circulate in the autumn of 2009 about the use of violence by the security forces and Revolutionary Guards, about a toll of 60 dead during demonstrations and dozens imprisoned. Incidents during demonstrations, deaths and disappearances were recounted by relatives and friends. So a second crackdown was launched targeting journalists who dared to cover the repression and use of violence.
Writer Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and head of Iran’s Centre for the Defence of Human Rights, will be declared an honorary citizen of Paris at a ceremony at the City Hall on 10 June. Reporters Without Borders has joined the International Federation of Human Rights in appealing for the release of Iran’s prisoners of conscience.