Harsh verdicts issued against journalists and political activists show that the cost of advocacy for reform and civil liberties is still high in Iran despite pledges by moderate President Hassan Rouhani to change the status quo.
Marzieh Amiri, a journalist with the Reformist Shargh, was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison and 147 lashes last month. She was arrested while covering an International Workers Day rally in Tehran. According to Reporters Without Borders, she is now one of 10 female journalists behind bars in Iran.
Another Iranian journalist recently handed a heavy sentence is Kioomars Marzban, a filmmaker and satirist who was convicted of security charges including cooperating with a hostile state, namely the United States, and sentenced to 23 years and nine months in prison.
The 2019 Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders ranks Iran as 170th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, painting a grim picture of a nation with highly talented and educated journalists but flawed laws and media regulations including restrictions on the newspapers, online publications and social networks.
Iran’s judiciary appears to have tightened the noose on media and political activists under new Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi is an arch-conservative who was a rival of the incumbent Rouhani in the 2017 election, but lost the race mostly due to his unpopularity among the youth as a former judge linked to the controversial mass executions of political prisoners in 1988. The hard-line cleric is considered a possible successor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In the judiciary, which is independent of the administration, there’s an entrenched antipathy toward journalists and political activists and they’re often accused of broad security crimes including undermining national security and colluding with hostile states to topple the government. The same suspicion taints Iran’s relations with dual nationals and in August, BBC World published a list of 13 Iranians with dual nationality or foreign permanent residency who are serving lengthy prison terms in Iran.
Perhaps the most prominent dual national currently incarcerated in Iran is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British charity worker and project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation who was detained in April 2016 and sentenced to five years in prison for “plotting to topple the Iranian government.” Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention has been a major sticking point between the governments of Iran and the United Kingdom, and diplomatic efforts on the part of the British government have so far failed to secure her release.
This mentality that many journalists and political activists function as the domestic pawns of foreign governments and are on missions to overthrow the Islamic Republic has plagued the Iranian authorities since the early days of the 1979 revolution and is responsible for many detentions and heavy sentences. It’s the reason Iran has earned a reputation as one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world. Journalists can be accused of crimes against national security merely for expressing an unconventional viewpoint, criticizing even low-ranking authorities, exposing corruption, interviewing intellectuals and public figures disfavored by the government or simply maintaining international contacts.
Many of those arrested and indicted in political courts turn out to have no malign intent or grudges against the Islamic Republic. They are simply trying to do their jobs and express their views as journalists. However, harsh sentences and grueling prison conditions often strip them of their sense of belonging and convince them to immigrate and cooperate with opposition media outlets. A case in point is Arash Sigarchi, a Reformist journalist in northern Iran and the former editor-in-chief of Gilan-e Emrooz, a local daily newspaper published in Guilan province, who was arrested in 2005, condemned to 14 years in jail, developed cancer while in custody and moved to the United States after being granted a medical furlough to receive treatment. He is currently a correspondent for the Voice of America Persian, an international broadcaster affiliated with the US State Department known for its unfriendly views of the Islamic Republic and its highly critical coverage of Iran affairs.
Some observers and analysts believe the intensifying crackdown on journalists and rights activists in Iran is a byproduct of the growing international pressure on the Middle East nation over its nuclear program and regional policies. They say in countries with certain political climates, international pressure often generates internal repression, and in the case of Iran, the draconian US sanctions and the ensuing political isolation have made the atmosphere particularly toxic for independent journalists and political activists.
“International pressure has always been used in Iran and other authoritarian regimes as an excuse for internal repression. In Iran we have experienced this in the past,” said Mahmoud Sadri, a professor of sociology at the Federation of North Texas Area Universities.
“Last month, four former Iranian statesmen in the government of Mr. [Mohammad] Khatami wrote a joint letter to New York Review of Books and reiterated the same warning, that increased international pressure on Iran will translate into further repression and dismantling of Reformist politicians by the far right,” he told Al-Monitor.
Sadri, whose writings have appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times and Time, implied that Iran’s Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who was appointed to the post in March 2019, may have personal reasons for the imposition of severe restrictions on Iranian journalists and political activists: “Speculation abounds concerning the present and future plans of Mr. Raisi. Some believe his judiciary’s punitive profile is influenced by his aspirations of becoming the future supreme leader and that by these measures he is hoping to curry favor with the extreme right and thus position himself for that quantum leap. Others believe that his rivalries with the former judiciary chief, Mr. [Sadegh] Larijani, and President Rouhani explain his current clampdown on journalists and civic rights activists.”
A question that many critics and observers in Iran have been wrestling with since Rouhani came to power in August 2013 and was reelected in a landslide in 2017 is why he hasn't done more to improve social and political freedoms and make working conditions more favorable for journalists and political activists, as he is widely viewed as a reformer with progressive views.
Gissou Nia, a human rights lawyer and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, believes the president’s power in Iran is limited and even if Rouhani wished, he would not be able to implement all the reforms and changes he has in mind. “The president’s de jure powers can be undercut by other players in the power structure who wield de facto control. So even on the assumption that Rouhani really did intend to change things and it wasn’t just a series of hollow campaign promises, the way the system is configured does not set the president up for success to deliver on these reforms.”
“At the time, there was a hope that the Iranian leadership would recognize that passing some much-needed reforms at home would help ease international pressure calling for human rights progress and that this calculus would give Rouhani the political space to pursue those aims but more than two years into his second term we see that ultimately he has not moved the needle on these issues,” she added.
Accounts by international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International depict Iran’s human rights record as deplorable. Even if only for the sake of its international image and stature, Iran needs to reform its relations with journalists, political activists, bloggers, teachers and laborers and make serious efforts to help its people while they bear the brunt of punishing US sanctions.
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