Rouhani has yet to deliver on press reforms in Iran
By Sherif Mansour - Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
CPJ joined 26 other human rights and civil society groups on Wednesday in an open letter calling on the member states of the U.N. Human Rights Council to renew the mandate of Ahmed Shaheed, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. The public letter also urged the members to participate in the March 17 Interactive Dialogue with the special rapporteur and to express concern over the severe violations of human rights, including anti-press abuses, in Iran.
The joint letter detailed several human rights violations in Iran, from the execution of hundreds of citizens to authorities' imprisonment of political prisoners, human rights advocates, and journalists. In addition, the U.N. Secretary-General reported in 2013 that "gender inequalities and violence against women persist in law and practice" in the country.
Over the years, CPJ has consistently called for the Iranian government to be held accountable for its repressive methods, which include severe censorship of the press. Initial excitement over the election last summer of reputed reformist President Hassan Rouhani has not been borne out. For example, the 4,000-member Association of Iranian Journalists was shut down in 2009, but has not yet been reopened, despite Rouhani's campaign promises. In December 2013, a few months after Rouhani took office, CPJ found that Iran was the second worst jailer of journalists worldwide. CPJ research also ranks Iran first among those countries from where journalists have fled into exile over the past five years.
Under Rouhani's leadership, Iranian authorities have controlled the news coverage of certain topics by tightening the small circle of journalists and news outlets that are allowed to report on them. In February, for example, Iran's Supreme National Security Council filed a suit against Hossein Ghadyani, a conservative journalist, and his employer, Vatan-e Emrooz newspaper, for publishing four articles that criticized Iran's nuclear negotiations and alleged corruption in the government's dealings with an oil company. The suit is ongoing.
Rouhani's administration has consistently taken repressive measures against the media. Some of them include:
- An appeals court on March 8 upheld the prison terms and exile sentences given to Khosrow and Massoud Kordpour, two brothers who worked as journalists for the Mukrian News Agency, according to reports. The agency documents human rights violations and reports on the arrests and prosecutions of Kurdish activists. Massoud is serving three and a half years on charges of "assembly and collusion" and "propaganda against the regime." Khosrow was sentenced to six years in prison followed by two years of exile, on charges of "participating in a protest gathering" and "propaganda against the regime."
- Saeed Pourazizi, managing editor of Bahar newspaper, told the official Iranian News Agency on March 8 that a Tehran court had ordered his paper to be closed for six months after it had published a story in November that questioned Shia beliefs, according to reports. The paper was accused of "propagating against the regime," "insulting Islam," and "spreading rumors and lies," among others, and was shut down on November 24 by Iran's Press Oversight Committee. The court also sentenced Pourazizi to 91 days in prison, but suspended the term for two years.
- Saeed Razavi Faghih, a journalist for several reformist publications, was arrested on March 6 to begin serving a one-year prison term for unspecified "security crimes," IRNA reported, citing the Iranian judiciary. He had made a speech the week before in which he had criticized the government, reports said. Faghih was tried in absentia in 2009 and sentenced to prison for "propagating against the regime."
- On February 20, authorities shut down the daily Aseman newspaper--which had printed only six issues--in connection with its report that criticized Iran's criminal punishments, as it related to capital punishment. The paper's license was also revoked.
- In September, Neshat newspaper announced that it would resume publishing under the direction of its former editor-in-chief, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a 2001 CPJ Press Freedom Awardee. The paper hired scores of journalists and published several trial issues. But on December 2, judicial authorities ordered the paper to be shut down. Neshat never made it to newspaper stands.
- Seraj Mirdamadi, a journalist who has worked for reformist publications, returned to Iran on the eve of Rouhani's inauguration in August after living in exile in Paris since 2009. Authorities accused him of working for opposition outlets and interrogated him about his posts on Facebook in which he had discussed the accusations. He was banned from foreign travel pending trial. No trial date has been set yet.
Several Iranian journalists continue to languish behind bars in Iran, jailed in connection with their journalistic work, according to CPJ research. Some suffer from severe health problems caused by torture, poor prison conditions, and lack of hygiene and medical treatment. The journalists include:
- Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, a blogger, suffers from kidney failure, a condition he developed in prison. Maleki was sentenced in 2010 to 15 years in prison on anti-state charges. Authorities have refused to release him on medical furlough to receive treatment outside the prison. Last week, his father wrote an open letter to Iranian officials, in which he described his son's lack of proper medical treatment.
- Kayvan Samimi, 65, manager of the now-defunct monthly Nameh, was arrested in 2009 and has been hospitalized since November 2013 for heart, stomach, and knee problems. A source close to his family told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran in January that Samimi could be released under provisions in the new Islamic penal code. The law states that an individual facing multiple charges should only be sentenced for the charge with the heaviest punishment, according to human rights groups citing an Iranian lawyer. Under the old law, an individual would be sentenced for each conviction. Samimi was convicted of "propagating against the regime" and "assembly and collusion to disturb national security" and was given a total of six years in prison for the charges. The Iranian judiciary has refused to enforce the new law.
- Adnan Hassanpour, editor of the now-defunct Kurdish-Persian weekly Aso, was arrested in January 2007 and sentenced in May 2010 to 15 years in prison. He has not been allowed a single day of furlough during his time in prison despite repeated requests by his lawyer and family, news reports said. In August, he wrote a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, expressing hope that his vote for Rouhani would help bring peaceful change to Kurdistan province and its people. On January 23, he was transferred to a prison more than 1,000 miles away from his hometown and family.
The situation of press freedom in Iran remains bleak. Now is not the time to throw in the towel on the hope for reforms. The international community should stay vigilant and focus on holding the Iranian government accountable for its repressive methods and its severe censorship of the press. Renewing the mandate of Ahmed Shaheed will be a step in the right direction.
About the author: CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour has worked to advocate for democracy and human rights in Egypt. He has a master's in international relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a bachelor's in education from Cairo's Al-Azhar University.
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