Journalists bear brunt of government crackdown in Iran, says watchdog

By Scheherezade Faramarzi, AP
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Iran tops list of jailers of journalists in world

BEIRUT — Journalists have become a prime target in an Iranian government crackdown on the opposition following last June’s disputed presidential election, with 52 of them currently held — making Iran the top jailer of journalists in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The wave of arrests, which has only accelerated recently, has sent a chill through journalists in Iran at a time when the opposition is struggling to maintain its challenge against the government in the face of a heavy crackdown on pro-reform figures.

In response, a sort of “underground” journalism has emerged, said Reza Valizadeh, 32, who used to work for the state-run radio and television but who fled the country amid the postelection crackdown.

“We have a kind of guerrilla journalists, who wear masks, have no names, write under pseudonyms and send e-mails without mentioning their real names to news outlets outside Iran, or publish in weblogs with pseudonyms,” said Valizadeh, who now lives in Paris.

“A very, very bitter and black period awaits journalists,” he told The Associated Press.

The at least 52 journalists now in Iranian jails range from freelance reporters to writers for opposition blogs and newspapers and even several for government-owned media, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in a report released Tuesday. Seven of them were imprisoned before the June election.

Eleven of those in prison were arrested in February, according to CPJ — and the total number does not include 50 other journalists who were arrested since the election and were since released on bail.

At least a hundred journalists have fled the country, at least 80 of them are in neighboring Turkey.

Charges against the detainees have been vague in most cases, CPJ said, such as “propagation against the regime,” insulting authorities, and disrupting public order, while many other cases are shrouded in secrecy, without even formal charges being disclosed.

Some have received prison sentences of up to six years, lashes, internal exile and lifetime bans on writing and other social and political activities. At least two face heresy charges that, upon conviction, would bring the death penalty.

“I understand the price I have to pay,” one of the journalists on the CPJ list, Kouhyar Goodarzi, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press shortly before he was picked up by Iranian security forces in December.

He said in the e-mail that he was willing to risk “imprisonment, torture, pressures of interrogation and solitary confinement … in pursuit of my precious goals.”

Although no formal charges have been laid against Goodarzi, he has since told his family that interrogators have mentioned “moharebeh,” a vague charge that literally means “waging war” against God and normally carries a death sentence under Iranian law, as well as propaganda against the system through interviews with foreign media and participation in illegal gatherings.

Goodarzi — a member of the Committee for Human Rights Reporters, an independent watchdog group — is currently locked up in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

“Iran is entering a state of permanent media repression, a situation that is not only appalling but also untenable,” said a statement by CPJ quoting its Executive Director Joel Simon. “The Iranian government will eventually lose the war against information, but we are saddened every day that our colleagues are paying such a terrible price.”

The crackdown is an extension of the wave of arrests that Iran has carried out in a bid to crush the opposition movement, which carried out widespread protests claiming that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the June election was fraudulent. Hundreds have been detained

Part of the aim appears to be to shut down information about the opposition movement. A number of protesters and activists have been jailed in part for talking to foreign press. Several pro-reform newspapers have been shut down — including the Etemaad daily and Irandokht weekly in March, as well as a business journal critical of government policies.

Currently, China is the world’s second largest jailer of journalists, with 24 in prison, followed by Cuba, with 22. The number of jailed journalists is the highest CPJ has recorded in a single country since December 1996, when it documented 78 imprisonments in Turkey.

Another of those on the CPJ list is Shiva Nazar Ahari, who has been jailed twice in the last nine months. The second time, she and Goodarzi were detained as they were on their way to the holy city of Qom on a bus to attend the funeral of dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri in late December.

“We don’t know what the charges against her are,” her mother, Shahrzad Kariman, said in a telephone interview from Tehran. “I haven’t been able to speak to anyone, not to the judge. We don’t know anything right now. Her lawyer hasn’t had access to her files either.”

She said when she last saw her daughter in a prison visit two weeks ago, she told her interrogators had said she faces 19 charges but did not say what they were. Ahari spent the first 60 days of her detention in solitary confinement but was moved to another ward about two weeks ago where she shares a cell with another prisoner, Kariman said.

With the coming of the Iranian New Year on March 20, “the family will be together. We would like to celebrate with her,” Kariman said.

Fariborz Soroush, 37, who worked for the U.S.-sponsored Radio Farda and was jailed twice for his work, said reporters who write on sports, the economy, social and cultural issues are not spared either these days. They are being summoned to the Intelligence Ministry, interrogated and even jailed.

He left Iran in September, six days after being released. He’s now in France.

Valizadeh, the former state TV journalist in exile as well, says the increase in arrests likely indicates interrogators are trying to get information on reporters now working anonymously and underground.

“The detainees may give away information about friends and colleagues under torture,” said Valizadeh. “This is what the authorities are looking for.”

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