The dangerous world of Iranian journalists

Who knows exactly what happened in Iran during the demonstrations Thursday marking the anniversary of the Islamic revolution? Thousands of images and stories have leaked out of the country since the disputed presidential election last June. But it is extremely difficult to verify information. Those foreign reporters who get visas are forbidden to cover opposition demonstrations. As for the local reporters who have not been jailed or fled the country, their main concerns are how to be efficient, now that a dozen newspapers have been closed since June. As of this month, Iran is imprisoning more journalists than any other country.

Last summer, a prominent photojournalist was summoned by judicial authorities in Tehran just as government security forces had been rounding up hundreds of journalists, opposition members and protesters in the wake of the disputed election. He had been covering the election for the French photography agency SIPA and Andisheye Now, a newspaper owned by Mir Hossein Mousavi, one of the candidates for president. But this photojournalist’s ties to an opposition paper were not the cause of the regime’s concerns — at least not at first. Authorities were furious because he had filed photos of the protests to his employer in France, an action they contended was akin to spying and participating in a conspiracy against the government.

Over the weeks that followed, two of his colleagues were picked up on similar charges, Andisheye Now was shut down, and its editor, Amir Hossein Mahdavi, was imprisoned. Fearing arrest at any moment, he left the country with only a small bag and his camera. He arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan on Aug. 4, and after overcoming various bureaucratic hurdles at the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, he secured a visa for France.

Such stories are, sadly, increasingly common. Many Iranian reporters see exile as the only means to guarantee their safety. At least 50 journalists have fled the country since June, the largest exodus of the sort since the 1979 revolution. One journalist had to flee because she spoke to the BBC about Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman who became a symbol of the opposition after she was fatally shot during the protests. One photojournalist fled after one of his images was prominently used by a major international media organization. A third had to leave after blogging about the situation of prisoners.

This list grows longer every day.

The state’s reaction to the spread of information has been repression. When the vice minister for culture and Islamic orientation describes news media publications and Web sites as “means used in an attempt to overthrow the state,” it is clear that the regime is ridding itself of unwanted witnesses to its human rights abuses.

More than seven months after the election, 48 Iranian journalists are still being detained in difficult conditions. On Nov. 20, a U.N. General Assembly committee accused the government of stepping up its use of torture and other forms of cruel and inhuman punishment, and expressed concern about “serious ongoing and recurring human rights violations.” Despite such clear condemnations from the United Nations, Iranian authorities continue to detain journalists without any accountability.

Sasan Aghaei of the daily newspaper Farhikhteghan was picked up Nov. 22 after intelligence ministry officials carried out a search of his Tehran home. Aghaei, who also edits the blog Azad Tribun, is the third Farhikhteghan journalist to be arrested since the election. The other two, Masoud Bastani and Reza Norbakhsh, the newspaper’s editor, have both been given six-year jail sentences.

Even media professionals who remain free cannot escape government surveillance and intimidation. Their persecution is part of a wider harassment campaign carried out by security forces, designed to protect President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei from internal dissent and to limit the information leaving the country. To an extent, the strategy has succeeded.

During the “Green Revolution” last summer, the power of social networking sites as an alternative to other media amazed the world. The regime took notice. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are now directly involved in online censorship, blocking thousands of news Web sites and blogs every day.

Censored in Iran or forced into exile, journalists often no longer have a platform or means to openly discuss the political and human rights situation in their home country. By making these journalists choose between repression or flight, the regime has succeeded in tightening its grasp over information. The exodus of Iranian journalists is not just a human tragedy but also increases the risk of a news blackout.

The international community must continue to denounce the conditions that have led journalists to flee Iran, as well as ensure that exiled journalists have the means to continue their work in a safe environment. Failing to do so could be disastrous for the Iranian people and the global community.

Jean-Francois Julliard, general secretary of Reporters Without Borders