Updated at 9:20 p.m. Aug. 15.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Shepol Ebnabbasi and Behrooz Samadbeiygi contributed.
WASHINGTON — Iran has broken its silence on its detention of prominent photojournalist Nooshin Jafari, whose arrest earlier this month sparked a backlash from Iranian filmmakers and actors who have worked with her.
In a Tuesday briefing reported by Iran’s state-approved KhabarOnline news site, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said authorities had detained a person on suspicion of insulting Shia Islam’s Third Imam Husayn ibn Ali and spreading anti-government propaganda. The site said Esmaili was responding to a reporter’s question about Jafari.
Esmaili also is quoted as saying that during a search of the premises and technical equipment related to the detainee, authorities found material that was deemed improper for someone in that person’s profession. No further detail was provided in the KhabarOnline report.
Arrested in early August
Iranian officials had been silent on Jafari’s case since last week, when social media users reported that she had been arrested Aug. 3 and circulated an image of a judiciary document saying authorities had searched her home on the same date, confiscating her mobile phone, memory drives and cameras.
In a report published Monday, U.S.-based media rights group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) confirmed the authenticity of the document and said Jafari had been detained outside her home as she left for work.
The photojournalist had not had any contact with her family one week after her detention, according to her sister Shahrzad Jafari in an interview published Saturday by Iran’s Ensaf News, a site supportive of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Before the judiciary’s announcement of the allegations against Jafari, pro-government social media users had shared unsubstantiated accusations that she was behind a Farsi-language Twitter account whose content they deemed insulting to Islam for mocking historical Islamic religious figures.
The account, @YaarDabestaani, meaning “School Friend,” was created in 2017 and features a profile image of a woman who resembles Jafari but whose identity is unknown. It also displays London as the location of the account holder.
In her interview with Ensaf News, Shahrzad Jafari said her sister had “nothing to do” with the @YaarDabestaani account.
The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that Nooshin Jafari began working for Iran’s reformist Etemad newspaper in 2006 as a photojournalist focusing on theater and cinema photography. CHRI also has said authorities arrested her once before in February 2010 while she was employed by the newspaper, but it was not clear how long she had been detained on that occasion.
Jafari later won acclaim for her photographic contributions to independent Iranian films, including a national award for 2016’s Lantouri, a drama about a female social activist who becomes a victim of an acid attack.
Several Iranian film industry figures who have worked with Jafari criticized her arrest as they spoke to VOA Persian on Thursday on condition of anonymity.
"We are very concerned about Nooshin Jafari's well-being," said one writer/director. "It has been 40 years since Iran's Islamic Revolution and our expectation of the Islamic Republic is to stop all torment and kidnapping of its citizens."
In a separate interview, an actress described Jafari's arrest as "very disconcerting," adding: "We all know that Nooshin is not involved in political activities."
Another actress called Jafari "the most trustworthy and peaceable artist among us."
Other prominent members of Iran's film industry posted social media messages in support of Jafari last week, as news emerged of her detention.
Reza Dormishian, who directed Lantouri, posted a photo of Jafari on his Instagram page and a message saying, “While working with her, I have seen nothing but professional spirit and responsibility … I hope the misunderstandings (regarding her detention) are resolved soon.”
Award-winning Iranian actress Hanieh Tavassoli also expressed sympathy for Jafari on Instagram, writing that she has known the photojournalist for years and long admired her “hard work and perseverance.” Tavassoli posted the message next to a photo of herself with Jafari.
Tavassoli became the target of punitive government action herself this week.
An Iranian distributor for Tavassoli’s latest move, The Original Idea, told Iran’s state-run ILNA news agency that state television has demanded her images and voice be removed from trailers of the film. In a Wednesday report, ILNA quoted the public relations director of Khane-ye Film (House of Cinema) Payam Nikfard as saying the network threatened not to broadcast the trailers unless the changes were made.
The ILNA report did not cite a reason for state television’s punitive measure against Tavassoli. But VOA sister network Radio Farda reported that in recent days, hundreds of Iranian social media users have said they believe Iranian intelligence agencies are seeking to suppress celebrities seen as dissidents.
In a Tuesday statement sent to VOA Persian, British nonprofit group Index on Censorship, which advocates for free speech worldwide, said Jafari’s arrest is “yet another indication of how limited media freedom is in Iran.” It called on Tehran to release her immediately.
Iran ranked a lowly 170 out of 180 nations in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index published by Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders, also known as RSF.