Only last month two female journalists were arrested for reporting on recent acid-throwing incidents in the city of Isfahan, where women who were supposedly improperly dressed have been disfigured and blinded by being sprayed with acid. Also arrested was the photographer who documented protests against these attacks. These three journalists were soon released, thanks to public outrage over the acid incidents–authorities have yet to arrest anyone–and the arrests themselves. But they were the lucky ones.
Editors, publishers and reporters often are summoned by Iranian authorities for allegedly violating the main national press law. The pattern is established: Security officials show up unannounced at a journalist’s home or workplace and arrest him or her. They search the premises and confiscate papers, computers, digital files and cellphones. Interrogations follow. If authorities decide to hold the journalist, they feel no compunction to provide a reason, nor to allow contact with immediate family or access to a lawyer.
This was the experience of Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American reporter for the Washington Post, and his journalist wife, Yeganeh Salehi. They were arrested at home in July; both had personal belongings confiscated. The judiciary provided only vague explanations for the arrests. Ms. Salehi was released last month but has remained silent about her interrogation and incarceration experiences, no doubt out of fear of jeopardizing her husband’s case. This, too, is true to form. Those hauled in for questioning are told when they are released that speaking out and any publicity would hurt rather than help them and their loved ones.
Mr. Rezaian has been in prison, incommunicado, for more than 100 days. A bit of information about his case emerged last week from Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary-general of the Iran High Council for Human Rights. In an interview with Euronews television channel in Geneva, Mr. Larijani said that prosecutors have charged Mr. Rezaian with “being involved in activities beyond journalism.” He predicted that the charges would be dropped and Mr. Rezaian released “in less than a month.” On Wednesday, however, a high-ranking judicial official denied that Mr. Rezaian would be released soon. This was not terribly surprising. On paper, Mr. Larijani’s job is to protect human rights in Iran; but effectively he whitewashes the Islamic Republic’s abysmal record on human rights. When I was a political prisoner in Iran in 2007, Mr. Larijani also assured world media of my impending release; then, too, this proved an empty promise.
As of July, 65 news providers were behind bars in Iran, according to Reporters Without Borders, and Iran remains “one of the world’s most repressive countries as regards to freedom of information.” Journalists in Iran must grapple with not only the Ministry of Guidance but also the Ministry of Intelligence, which works hand in hand with the judiciary. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guards have established their own (intrusive) Internet watchdog organization.
Lawyers brave enough to defend journalists and political dissidents have not fared well either. Abdolfattah Soltani was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2012. Mohammad Seifzadeh is serving a six-year sentence. The human and women’s rights lawyer and activist Nasrin Sotoudeh completed nearly three years in prison last year; she was briefly detained again when she joined the protests against the acid attacks in Isfahan.
Iranian lawyers and journalists display admirable courage in these difficult conditions. Lawyers continue to take cases and journalists continue to report stories and criticize government repression. Along with their informal colleagues on blogs and Facebook, they sign petitions, call for their incarcerated colleagues to be freed, and seek to uphold the principal of press freedom. Despite good intentions, the government of President Hasan Rouhani has been unable to protect them. Journalists and their lawyers pursue this struggle on their own.
Haleh Esfandiari directs the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She was held in solitary confinement in Evin Prison in Tehran for 105 days in 2007. The views expressed here are her own.
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