Dec 01, 2006

Ahwazi: Repression of Journalists more Subtle, Reporters without Borders Says

Since President Ahmadinejad came to power in June 2005, the repression of journalists in Iran has become more subtle and less visible, but it continues to be as effective as ever, Reporters Without Borders said.

The following is a statement by Reporters Without Borders on November 28 on suppression of journalists in Iran:

November 28 - Since ultraconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in June 2005 with a team consisting above all of former revolutionary guard commanders and intelligence officers, the repression of journalists in Iran has become more subtle and less visible, but it continues to be as effective as ever and to maintain Iran’s position as a leading violator of free expression, Reporters Without Borders said today.

Using arbitrary arrest and incarceration to decimate its independent press, the Islamic Republic has been the Middle-East’s biggest prison for journalists and cyber-dissidents since 2000.

Nowadays fewer journalists are imprisoned in Iran but this does not mean the authorities have relaxed the pressure on the press. Journalists are now often released provisionally after several days or weeks in detention, but no date is set for their trial, still less for their acquittal or the withdrawal of charges. Sometimes they are given prison sentences without ever being ordered to report to prison.

Prosecutions that are delayed and sentences that are not implemented are threats that hang over journalists and prevent them from writing freely. The Ahmadinejad government and the judicial authorities have turned the entire country into the region’s biggest open prison.

Most independent journalists or journalists who do not work for the government media are targeted by the authorities. One way or another is found to prevent them from working. At the same time, prosecutions are initiated against them and they have to pay large sums in bail (up to 60,000 euros) to get a provisional release while awaiting for the case to come to trial.

These journalists are unable to work any more after getting out of prison. On the one hand, they are afraid of writing another article that might displease the authorities. One the other, many editors and publishers get clear instructions not to hire them. In some cases, the arrests of journalists is accompanied by the closure of the media they work for.

The pro-reform daily Rouzegar was recently banned by the Press Surveillance Commission after giving jobs to journalists from the daily Shargh, after Shargh was closed down by the authorities on 11 September. The culture minister and Tehran prosecutor Said Mortazavi had sent the editor a list of journalists to fire, including former detainee Ahmad Zidabadi.

The daily Vaghayeh Ettefaghieh was similarly closed down in September 2004 after hiring many journalists from the daily Yas-e no, which had itself been shut down in February of that year. The order closing Vaghayeh Ettefaghieh mentioned the fact that most of its staff came from Yas-e no. The same year, the authorities tried to pressure the publisher of the daily Jomhouriat to dismiss his editor, Emadoldin Baghi, a leading pro-reform figure in the Iraqi media and press freedom advocate. After refusing to comply, Jomhouriat was itself finally closed on 18 July 2004.

Iranian journalists who choose to work for independent media are singled out for constant harassment. The cases of Issa Saharkhiz, Mohammad Sedigh Kabovand and Saghi Baghernia illustrate the plight of journalists in Iran. All three could be thrown in prison at any moment.

Saharkhiz, the editor of the monthly Aftab and the business newspaper Akhbar Eghtesadi, was sentenced on 14 June of this year to four years in prison and a five-year ban on working as a journalist for “offence to the constitution” and “publicity against the regime.” His lawyers were not notified of the verdict until 21 November. Although he has 20 days to appeal, Saharkhiz has refused to do so in protest against the arbitrary nature of his conviction. “Iranian justice takes its orders from Ayatollah Khamenei,” says Saharkhiz.

Kabovand was the editor of the weekly Payam-e mardom-e Kurdestan, which was published in both Kurdish and Farsi until its closure by the authorities in 2004. He was sentenced on 18 August 2005 to 18 months in prison and a five-year ban on journalist activity for “disrupting public opinion and disseminating separatist ideas.” He was summoned by the Office for the Execution of Sentences on 22 September of this year, two years after the sentence was handed down.

Baghernia, the publisher of the business daily Asia, was sentenced by the Tehran supreme court on 19 August to six months in prison for “propaganda against the regime” in the 5 July 2003 issue of Asia, which included a photo of Maryam Rajavi of the opposition People’s Mujahideen. Her husband, Iraj Jamshidi, the newspaper’s editor, was arrested on 6 July 2003 for the same reason and was sentenced to a year in prison. Baghernia received her second summons to report to prison in early November, but has not been arrested.

Since the start of 2004, Reporters Without Borders has registered more than 30 cases of journalists fleeing Iran to escape prosecution.