For a decade, Asal Abasian worked for independent Iranian media outlets including Shargh Daily and Andishe Pouya. But that path brought challenges.
As a journalist who identifies as nonbinary, Abasian was persecuted for their work and their identity.
Abasian, who uses they/them pronouns, was taken multiple times by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or IRGC to an unknown location.
There, the guards would subject Abasian to questioning, offensive remarks and "torture talking."
"I got many threats during all these years," Abasian told VOA via email. "Online and in person threats … Iran's society is extremely homophobic and me, as a LGBTQI journalist and feminist even got death threats via social media from Islamic Republic's cyber army."
Kiran Nazish, founding director of the Coalition For Women In Journalism, a nonprofit that assists women and nonbinary journalists, said such online campaigns are a serious threat for those in Iran and in exile.
The threat of arrest and online harassment has increased since the mass protests in 2022 over the death of a young Kurdish woman in police custody.
"There are a lot of Iranian journalists, bloggers, analysts, human rights defenders, lawyers, attorneys, feminists who had been speaking more [over the] last year. But we saw very effective online smear campaigns against these journalists," Nazish told VOA.
The campaigns, she said, have been an effective form of censorship.
Based on their research, her organization has found the state appears to orchestrate such campaigns with teams set up "to troll and create smear campaigns," she said.
Iran's Mission to the United Nations did not respond to VOA's emailed request for comment.
Family also harrassed
For Abasian, the harassment extended to their family. Relatives received threats because of the journalist's work, which often focused on gender equality and other cultural issues.
In Iran, same-sex relations are a punishable offense. Penalties range from lashings to the death penalty, according to Iran Human Rights, a nonprofit organization based in Norway.
Eventually, the interrogations and harassment became too much. Overnight in October 2021, Abasian fled Iran.
At first, they sought refuge in Turkey. Then, in January 2023 relocated to France.
Since leaving, Abasian has worked as a freelancer for international media organizations. And they have watched closely as Iran arrested dozens of journalists following the protests.
I want the international community to know that 'women, life, freedom' is still activeAsal Abasian, Iranian Journalist
Abasian tattooed the "Woman Life Freedom" slogan in Persian across their collarbone as an act of solidarity.
"I want the international community to know that 'women, life, freedom' is still active," Abasian said. "It's not just a protest against compulsory hijab, it's about citizens' rebellion against Islamic Republic and all their cruelty."
Compelled to write
Freelance journalist Afra Amid also is closely watching events of the past 12 months. Like Abasian, Amid left Iran in 2021. Now living in Turkey, she goes by a pen name to avoid persecution.
Amid grew up in Iran's Baha'i community, a religious minority whom rights groups say are singled out for persecution.
In 1991, Tehran introduced a policy stating that the state's dealings with the minority should ensure that their "progress and development are blocked."
"Baha'is are severely persecuted in Iran," she told VOA. "So even without doing anything, there's a chance that one day, like out of the blue they [the Iranian authorities] will attack your house and arrest you just because of being Baha'i."
Amid watched as many of her friends were arbitrarily arrested. One was taken into custody for being a kindergarten teacher. In Iran, it is illegal for Baha'is to work with children.
When you're a woman, you're a second-rate citizen. When you're Baha'i you're a second-degree citizen. When you're a journalist, you're not even a citizen.Afra Amid, Iranian Journalist
As a Baha'i, Amid wasn't allowed to attend university in Iran. She attended the underground Baha'i institute for Higher Education. Classes took place in safe houses across Tehran and online.
It was there that Amid discovered her love for journalism. With the encouragement of a professor, she wrote her first story about the pandemic.
She hadn't considered working as a journalist previously because of the risk.
"It's like when you're a woman, you're a second-rate citizen. When you're Baha'i you're a second-degree citizen. When you're a journalist, you're not even a citizen," Amid told VOA. "So imagine you have all of that at the same time. It is such a horrifying life."
But Amid she felt compelled to write, especially about the human rights violations she witnessed firsthand. Speaking and writing fluent English, she began pitching to foreign newsrooms in Canada, the United States, and Hong Kong.
In Iran, collaborating with foreign media is a punishable offense. Even though she published under her pen name, Amid worried about authorities breaking into her home and finding her laptop.
Amid said she began to feel paranoid walking the streets of Tehran, afraid she was being followed.
"I had a lot of things of talking to foreign journalists on the laptop, and even just one of them gave [authorities] enough excuses to do whatever they want — not just imprisonment, even execution," Amid told VOA.
Amid cites the charges of "corruption on earth" and "waging war against God" as constant threats.
Last year, Iran Human Rights documented 582 executions in Iran, 15 of which were for "corruption on earth" or "waging war against God."
Journalism against the law
In its 2022 report, the group referred to the charges as subjective, based on the Revolutionary Courts' judgments, and used "for a wide range of offences" not easily proved with evidence.
Abasian told VOA that in countries such as Iran, journalism is still a crime.
"If you write your beliefs against the regime, obviously you will be attacked by their security forces," they said.
Amid said shefeels safer since leaving Iran. In exile, she is able to connect with other journalists and works to bring information out of Iran and to the international community.
Still, she finds it difficult to be in exile. "Sometimes I close my eyes and I imagine myself in my home, and I imagine the streets and everything," she said. "I've been through a lot in my life. But nothing is more painful than not being able to go back."