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World Press Freedom Day in Iran: Journalists face rising threats

In this image from surveillance video aired by Iranian state television, women pull 16-year-old Armita Geravand from a train car on the Tehran Metro in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 1, 2023. Coverage of Geravand's death has resulted in journalists' arrests.
In this image from surveillance video aired by Iranian state television, women pull 16-year-old Armita Geravand from a train car on the Tehran Metro in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 1, 2023. Coverage of Geravand's death has resulted in journalists' arrests.

To mark World Press Freedom Day, which the U.N. celebrates every year on May 3 to defend media freedom, VOA's Persian Service has engaged in a comprehensive look at some of the events of the past year in which Iran was accused of violating freedom of expression.

Amid the unfolding events concerning Tehran’s crackdown on journalists, Iran’s judiciary has issued summonses to multiple reporters, among them Marzieh Mahmoudi, Asal Dadashloo and Mohammad Parsi.

Mahmoudi received her summons after making social media posts in response to a BBC report this week about the 2022 killing of Nika Shakarami, a young protester, by Iranian government forces.

Mahmoudi said this about the BBC’s story: "The report on Nika Shakarami's murder underscores the fact that they [Islamic Republic forces] executed individuals by plainclothes agents. The report presents two crucial details: One suggests that one of these individuals infiltrated the crowd as a protester, while the other indicates that the assailant used his socks to gag Nika."

The journalist revealed shortly afterward that she faced "a fresh case in the Culture and Media Court," yet she said, "Neither the charges nor the specifics were outlined."

Parsi similarly recounted how he had "penned down the plight of Nika Shakarami" that evening only to find himself "summoned to court the following morning." Ironically, he noted that it’s been six months since the Debsh tea embezzlement case — a huge corruption scandal involving billions of dollars of government subsidized foreign currency — and yet "neither arrests nor summonses have been issued" in that case.

According to an Iranian news outlet, the Tehran Prosecutor's Office brought charges against Milad Alavi, a journalist with the Shargh newspaper, for releasing a video depicting public reactions to the death sentence handed to Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi.

Editorial staff held hostage

Hedieh Kimiaei, a social journalist residing in Turkey, shared her insights on the mounting government crackdown on media in Iran in an interview with VOA Persian. She noted that over the past six months, certain newspapers, known for their in-depth coverage of societal issues, have experienced a notable decline in their social reporting.

Kimiaei said, "The Islamic Republic has sought to monopolize the news ... particularly in the instance of Armita Geravand's death at the hands of the morality police” at a Tehran metro station last autumn. “Journalists visiting the hospital were denied the opportunity to report" on Geravand’s story, she said.

Following Geravand’s death, journalist Maryam Lotfi, from the Shargh newspaper, was apprehended by Iranian authorities while she was at Fajr Air Force Hospital gathering information for a news report about the incident.

Kimiaei said the Islamic Republic similarly held the journalists of Fardaye Eghtesad newspaper hostage for three days in broad daylight, "journalists whose sole job is publishing news and reports."

She said many Iranian journalists have been summoned and detained even for republishing news and said that even journalists who wrote within the tolerance boundaries of the Islamic Republic have been summoned.

"In the past year," Kimiaei explained, "the Islamic Republic has significantly hindered freedom of expression and journalistic activities in Iran by implementing a series of unjust laws."

Surging pressure on journalists

The Defending Free Flow of Information (DeFFI) organization, a nonprofit advocating for freedom of expression, revealed that the Islamic Republic has initiated legal and security proceedings against 91 journalists, media activists and media outlets just in the first three months of 2024.

The group, founded by a coalition of journalists, human rights researchers and legal experts, documented in its latest report government efforts to discredit journalists and independent media outlets in a targeted manner.

According to the report, at the beginning of 2024, 24 journalists and media executives — seven women and 17 men — have received sentences that include 14 years and seven months of imprisonment, fines amounting to $1,616, two years of exile, four years of journalism practice prohibition, four years of social media activity prohibition and two years of travel bans.

The report also says that during the first three months of this year, the Islamic Republic infringed upon the legal rights of journalists facing judicial persecution in at least 95 instances.

In February, the number of judicial prosecutions of journalists and media executives surged by 40% compared with the previous month, according to the report.

Coercion, unjust trials

During the hacking of Iran’s judiciary's websites in February, leaked documents revealed that judicial authorities had handed down imprisonment sentences to several journalists associated with VOA's Persian Service in April 2022, citing charges of “propaganda against the system.”

In reaction to these rulings, a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of State underscored the unsurprising nature of such actions from the Iranian government, which has garnered global notoriety for its crackdown on the media. Speaking to VOA's Persian Service, they stated, “The intimidation of journalists overseas by the Iranian regime and the domestic suppression of media are widely recognized worldwide.”

According to an Amnesty International report released in April, Iranian authorities, with the goal of quelling protests, have significantly curtailed basic freedoms by employing illegitimate coercive methods and unjust trials of activists, journalists and critics.

In response to the report, particularly the threats against journalists, Vedant Patel, deputy spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State said in April, "The Islamic Republic continues to be one of the largest sponsors of terrorism and has consistently shown since 1978 a disregard for freedom, continuing to suppress civil society, intimidate the media and violate human rights."

Independent media in Iran lack the freedom to operate, while independent journalists are routinely targeted with security and legal actions on any pretext.

International organizations like Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists have consistently denounced Iran’s government for its infringement on press freedom in recent decades. Iran is frequently highlighted as one of the largest jailers of journalists.