ANKARA, 21 Apr 2004 (IRIN) - In a joint effort, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and the World Editors Forum (WEF) have sent a letter of protest to Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, head of the judiciary in Iran, voicing their concern over a prison sentence handed down to freelance journalist Ensafali Hedayat.
"We release a protest letter addressed to the authorities in cases where journalists are imprisoned for carrying out their activities. In Iran, the last months have been mainly concentrated on this kind of individual harassment and detention, such as the one that happened a few days ago [the case of Ensafali Hedayat]," Kajsa Tornroth, director of WAN's press freedom programme, told IRIN from Paris on Wednesday.
Hedayat was sentenced on 14 April in a court in the northwestern city of Tabriz to one year in jail for "insulting senior officials of the Islamic Republic" and to six months for distributing "propaganda against the regime", according to the WAN official.
"Even if this was true, this is no reason to jail somebody," Tornroth said, noting: "No journalist should be jailed for carrying out his journalistic activities."
According to Tuesday's protest letter, there were irregularities in the judicial process against the journalist, including his lawyer not having proper access to his client's file in the run up to the trial. The WAN/WEF letter also asserted that Hedayat "claimed to have been subjected to severe pressure to confess to the charges brought against him".
WAN and WEF were not alone in their criticism. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international press freedom organisation, condemned the 18-month prison sentence on Hedayat, calling at the same time for the immediate release of all 12 journalists currently incarcerated in Iran. Particular concern was raised over the life of Siamak Pourzand, a 75-year jailed journalist, given health concerns.
According to Tornroth, Iran has the highest number of journalists in prison in the Middle East, making it one of the most repressive in the world in terms of press freedom and freedom of expression.
Tuesday's letter is the second this month to the Iranian authorities from WAN and WEF, which together represent 18,000 publications in 100 countries. In a letter sent to the authorities on 8 April, both organisations expressed their concern over the detention of Mostafa Sabti, editor of the weekly Gorgan e-emrouz, arrested "on the orders of a court in Gorgan [northern Iran], after judicial authorities filed a defamation complaint against him".
Tornroth described the overall press freedom situation in the country as quite bad, following the recent closure of several newspapers and the imprisonment of several journalists. "I know that things were better for a while, but during the last six months I get the sense that the situation has again turned worse," she explained.
As for the government's position with regard to press freedom, she remarked: "There are people who have a positive attitude and think that Iran needs free media, but there is also a conservative part of the government who are not in agreement. So, both views are represented in the Iranian government."
Currently, WAN is establishing contacts with press freedom networks and press freedom groups inside the country in an effort to send an assessment mission to the country.
"What we are hoping to do is to go on a mission to discuss with the Iranian authorities the current situation and the changes that can be made for press freedom in the country," Tornroth said.
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