Iran's journalists are under siege

Iran's journalists are under siege
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Iran’s journalists are under siege. The Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that the regime in Tehran was “summoning journalists, raiding their homes and confiscating their electronic devices in a renewed campaign to silence criticism of state policies ahead of Iran’s parliamentary elections” on Feb. 21.

It’s only one of the latest outrages in a lengthy list of recent Iranian misconduct against journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, a total of 24 journalists and citizen-journalists currently languish in Iranian jails, making it the world’s seventh-largest jailer of journalists. Since 1979, the organization states, Tehran has imprisoned or executed at least 860 journalists and citizen-journalists. Reporters Without Borders has ranked Iran 170th out of 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

In September 2019, four journalists — Amirhossein Mohammadifard, Sanaz Alahyari, Asal Mohammadi, and Amir Amirgholi — received prison sentences of 18 years each following convictions on charges that included “membership of a group with the purpose of disrupting national security.” The group in question: Gam, an online magazine that reports on social justice issues. An appeals court later reduced the sentences to five years each.

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But it’s not only domestic outlets that feel the wrath of the Islamic Republic. The BBC is a favorite target of the regime. Tehran has persecuted and intimidated BBC Persian journalists and their families, arbitrarily arresting them, publicly smearing them, and freezing their assets. In November 2019, as nationwide protests consumed Iran and elicited a bloody response from the regime, Tehran threatened to snatch BBC journalists off the streets of London, where BBC is based, if they failed to resign their posts.

“Over the last few weeks,” stated BBC World Service Director Jamie Angus in December, “family members of BBC staff have been called in for questioning, had their passports confiscated and told that they must ask their relatives to stop working for the BBC or face the consequences. At the same time, the Iranian media has cited BBC Persian television as allegedly encouraging unrest and violence in Iran.”

Tehran has issued similar threats against Iran International, a Persian news channel also based in London. The website of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence stated that it has “monitored and identified all movements and actions” of the channel’s employees, and will punish those who “serve foreigners” and “betray the country.” The ministry “strongly condemns the activities of this network … as collaborating with enemies … in terrorist acts,” the website said.

Similarly, after Iran’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian plane in early January, killing all 176 people on board, Hesameddin Ashena, the media advisor for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, tweeted that Persian-language media should not “participate in the psychological warfare regarding the Ukrainian airliner [crash] and stop cooperating with those who are at war with Iran.” In effect, the advisor attempted to intimidate journalists from reporting the truth lest it damage Iran’s reputation.

Reporters Without Borders now notes that Iran’s intelligence organs summoned at least 21 Iranian journalists, warning them not to speak about government efforts to conceal its culpability for the Ukrainian plane crash. When the truth became known, several journalists for Iranian state media, which generally toe the government’s line, abruptly resigned, publicly apologizing for reporting falsehoods. “Forgive me for the 13 years I told you lies,” said one of them, Gelare Jabbari, in an Instagram post.

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Iran’s intimidation of journalists has extended even to the cyber realm. In early February, Reuters reported that Iranian hackers impersonated Azadeh Shafiee, an anchor for Iran International, “in attempts to break into the accounts of a relative of hers in London and Prague-based Iranian filmmaker Hassan Sarbakhshian.” In another incident, hackers impersonated Farnaz Fassihi, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal who currently works for The New York Times, in an attempt to break into the email account of German academic Erfan Kasraie.

The latest crackdown comes at a particularly precarious moment for the regime. The Ukrainian plane downing is just one challenge to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. In recent months, the regime has also faced nationwide protests, the U.S. killing of senior military commander Qassem Soleimani, a Coronavirus crisis, and increasingly crippling American sanctions. Tehran is on the defensive, with no clear exit strategy for regaining equilibrium.

Rather than taking steps to stabilize the country, it has chosen to lash out at the one profession tasked with reporting the truth. In a sense, Tehran’s conduct not only reflects its disdain for impartial journalists at home, but also reflects the regime’s fear of international opprobrium as criticism mounts. This provides an opportunity for the Trump administration.

Washington should sanction Mahmoud Alavi, Iran’s minister of intelligence, who presides over much of Tehran’s repression of reporters. It should also sanction Abbas Salehi, who heads the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is also responsible for censoring the press. In so doing, the Trump administration not only can signal that it considers Iran’s conduct unacceptable, but also can express solidarity with the long-suffering Iranian people.

Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow specializing in Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn. FDD is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonprofit nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.