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Iran - Rouhani's first 100 days see no progress on freedom of information

Source: Reporters Without Borders - Tue, 19 Nov 2013 10:40 GMT
Author: Reporters Without Borders
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Reporters Without Borders is very disappointed by President Hassan Rouhani's record on freedom of information during his first 100 days in office and again urges him to keep his promises to end abuse of authority, impunity and censorship.

A moderate conservative backed by Iran's reformists, Rouhani was declared the first round's outright winner on 15 June and took office on 3 August. Iranians used the election to vote en masse against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's policies, which are blamed for the arbitrary arrest of more than 300 journalists and netizens and their torture by the intelligence services.

Rouhani repeatedly said during his campaign that "all the political prisoners should be released." He also said on several occasions that he wanted a change "in favour of free speech and media freedom." These promises encouraged progressively-minded Iranians, especially young people and women, to give him their vote and make him the Islamic Republic's seventh president.

Nonetheless, despite the release of some prisoners of conscience, Iran continues to be one of the world's biggest prisons for journalists and netizens, with around 50 currently detained.

At least 10 more journalists and bloggers have been arrested since his election victory, 10 others have been sentenced to a combined total of 72 years in prison and three newspapers have been closed or forced to suspend publishing under pressure from the authorities.

Blocking freedom of information

Arrests

The writer Ali Asghar Gharavi was arrested in the city of Isfahan on 11 November on a charge of insulting "Islam's sacred texts" in an article on 23 October in the reformist daily Bahar, which the Press Authorization and Surveillance Commission, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance's censorship arm, suspended on 28 October.

Sayed Pour Aziz, the suspended Bahar's editor, was arrested on 4 November after responding to a summons to report to the Tehran's prosecutor's office, and was released on bail of 200 million toman (about 250,000 euros) pending trial.

Mostafa Faghihi, editor of the Tehran-based news website Entekhab, was arrested on 7 October after getting a court summons over a complaint about comments on the site referring to the rapprochement between Iran and the United States. Faghihi, who is close to Rouhani, was freed on bail of 100 million toman (90,000 euros) the next day.

Said Leali, Amir Yari and Mohammad Poladi, three students known for criticizing the authorities on their Facebook pages and blogs, were arrested by plainclothes intelligence officials on the University of Isfahan campus on 28 October. The reasons for their arrest and their place of detention are still unknown.

Fariba Pajoh, a journalist who works for several reformist newspapers, was arrested at her Tehran home on 9 July after plainclothes intelligence officials searched it. She was taken to Tehran's Evin prison and was released pending trial on bail of 300 million toman (300,000 euros) on 27 July.

The FTA (cyber-police) arrested two netizens in the southern city of Semnan on 7 July for insulting government officials on their Facebook page. "They confessed to their criminal actions during interrogation," the city's police chief, Ali Mir Ahmadi, told the Mehrnews agency.

Convictions

Two Kurdish journalists based in the western city of Mahamabad – Khosro Kourdpour, the editor of the news website Mokeryan, and his brother, Masoud Kourdpour, a reporter for the site – were sentenced to six and three and a half years in prison respectively on 9 November.

Convicted on charges of anti-government activities and propaganda, and publishing information about the situation of prisoners and human rights, they were arrested in early March and spent 111 days being held illegally by the intelligence services before being charged.

A Tehran revolutionary court informed Pegah Ahangarani, a young actress and blogger, on 28 October that she had been sentenced to 18 months in prison. The same court notified the journalist and documentary filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi on 23 October that he had been sentenced to five years in prison.

Farzaneh Nouri, the mother of Farhad Nouri, a journalist based abroad who writes for the Sufi news website Majzooban Nor, was sentenced to two years in prison in early August by a court in the southwestern city of Shiraz, above all because of her son's activities in exile.

A Tehran revolutionary court passed long jail terms on seven Majzooban Nor contributors on 13 July on charges of anti-government propaganda, insulting the Supreme Leader and endangering national security. Hamidreza Moradi was sentenced to ten years in prison, Reza Entesari was sentenced to eight and a half years, and Mostafa Daneshjo, Farshid Yadollahi, Amir Islami, Omid Behrouzi and Afshin Karampour were each sentenced to seven and a half years.

The court also banned all of them from practicing any kind of political or journalistic activity during the first five years after their release. The defendants, who had been held in Tehran's Evin prison since September 2011, and their lawyers refused to attend the trial on the grounds that it was unfair.

Closure of newspapers

Saymareh, an influential weekly based in Khoramabad, the capital of the western province of Lorestan, was finally forced to close on 29 October after a high court banned editor Kianoush Rostami from working for a year. The newspaper had already stopped publishing as a result of pressure from the local political authorities.

Rostami and one of his reporters, Parviz Gravand, were initially sentenced to one year and five years in prison respectively but the high court finally suspended the jail sentences and imposed a one-year work ban on both of them instead. The case was prompted by a September 2011 article headlined "Only dictators and asses make no mistakes."

Accusing the article of insulting "Islam's sacred character," local officials waged a campaign of harassment against the newspaper before filing a complaint. As a result, the newspaper decided to suspend publication until the court delivered its verdict. The jury did not let the newspaper's lawyer finish his presentation during a hearing on 27 November 2011.

The Press Authorization and Surveillance Commission suspended the reformist daily Bahar on 28 October over an article published five days earlier headlined "Ali, the Shiites' first Imam, was a religious leader before being a political leader." Confirming the suspension, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, accused the newspaper of "falsifying history" and "trying to create differences among the country's clerics."

Inhumane treatment of jailed journalists and netizens

While some jailed journalists and netizens have been granted temporary paroles since July, there has been no significant change in the inhumane treatment of prisoners of conscience in Iran, especially in Evin and Raja'i Shahr prisons. Many detainees are still denied medical treatment despite being physically and psychologically ravaged by their illnesses.

Reporters Without Borders is particularly concerned about Mohammad Sadegh Kaboudvand, Arash Honarvar Shojai, Abolfazl Abedini Nasr, Hossein Ronaghi Malki, Said Madani, Kivan Samimi Behbani, Said Matinpour, Afshin Karampour and Mohammad Reza Pourshajari.

All have multiple ailments needing urgent treatment that cannot be given in prison but the judicial and prison authorities refuse to allow their transfer to hospital although this is recommended by the prison doctors and the regulations established by the judicial body that oversees the prison system.

1,000 days in arbitrary detention

Mehdi Karoubi, a dissident theologian, former parliamentary speaker and owner of the closed newspaper Etemad Melli, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the owner of the closed newspaper Kalameh Sabaz, and Mousavi's wife, the writer Zahra Rahnavard, completed their thousandth day under house arrest on 11 November. They have been deprived of all their rights since their arrest in February 2011.

Karoubi, 77, was transferred to an unknown destination on 31 July after an angioplasty operation in a Tehran hospital. His family said it was his third recent hospitalization for various ailments including a heart condition. He also has a slipped disc and an arthritic knee. Mousavi was taken to Tehran hospitals with a heart condition in August 2012 and September 2013.

Threats against journalists in Iran and abroad

Journalists are still being harassed and threatened, and the intelligence ministry continues to pressure the families in Iran of journalists who are abroad, working for media based outside the country.

Close relatives of several journalists working for international media such as Radio Farda (an offshoot of Radio Free Europe) or Voice of America have been summoned since June and interrogated at length by intelligence ministry officials.

At the same time, journalists in Iran are being summoned and questioned by the intelligence ministry and Revolutionary Guards. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one of them said he was told: "Don't believe in any revolution. It was an election controlled by the regime. You voted and now it is over. You are still under surveillance and control. No critical articles, not even ones about art or history. And no meetings."

End to impunity?

In an open letter to the president-elect on 18 June, Reporters Without Borders wrote: "Mr. Rouhani, you are now the Islamic Republic's seventh president, elected thanks to massive support from Iranian reformers and progressives. Do you undertake to end arbitrary actions and impunity? The murders of dissident journalists must not go unpunished.

"They include the deaths of Ebrahim Zalzadeh, Majid Charif, Mohammed Mokhtari, Mohammed Jafar Pouyandeh and Pirouz Davani, all executed by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security in November and December 1988.

"They also include the deaths in detention of Zahra Kazemi (2003), Ayfer Serçe (2006), the young blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi and Alireza Eftekhari (2008), the journalist and women's rights activist Haleh Sahabi, and the Iran-e-Farda journalist Hoda Saber (2011) and blogger Sattar Beheshti (2012). Those who ordered and carried out these crimes must be brought to justice."

The first anniversary of the blogger Sattar Beheshti's death at a detention centre run by the FTA (cyber-police) on 3 November 2012 occurred during Rouhani's first 100 days in office. After a year of procedural difficulties, an initial hearing on the cause of his death was to have been held on 27 October but was postponed until an unknown date. Those who tortured Beheshti to death are still unpunished.

Beheshti's mother named her son's alleged murderer in an open letter to Rouhani posted on the Sahamnews website on 21 October. She wrote: "My son was killed under torture by Akbar Taghizadeh, an officer in the Iranian cyber-police (FTA). For a year, I thought the Islamic Republic's justice system would punish my son's murderer. I ask you to respect your undertaking to enforce the constitution and respect for citizens' rights."

According to the information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, Beheshti died from internal cerebral bleeding caused by blows to the head but the judicial authorities are still pressuring the family and its lawyer to accept the prosecution's classification of his death as "involuntary homicide by accident or negligence."

In his own open letter to Rouhani, the family's lawyer, Ghiti Pourfazel, accused the justice system of doing everything possible to suppress the truth: "In an attempt to have the complaint withdrawn, they intimidated the mother by threatening to arrest her daughter, then they put psychological pressure on the father. Although these attempts failed and we have known for the past eight months that Sattar was killed by a police officer, the investigation has ground to a halt."

Internet – open for government, filtered for people

The only notable changes in the past 100 days have been the Twitter and Facebook accounts of the president and some of his ministers, and the end of the quarterly statements about the launch of a "Halal" (national) Internet although this project, which would impose a "digital apartheid," has not been abandoned.

When Twitter owner and cofounder Jack Dorsey provocatively tweeted to Rouhani, "Good evening, President, are citizens of Iran able to read your tweets?" Rouhani suavely replied, "Evening, Jack (…) my efforts are geared to ensure my people are comfortably able to access all information globally as is their right."

But, except for foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and some of the regime's closest allies, social networks are still banned in Iran and Iranians have to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access them.

Mahmoud Vaezi, the minister of information and communication technologies, said on 15 November that "immoral websites must not be accessible to families but the filtering of scientific and correct websites can be lifted." This is not new. It is what former president President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used to say.

Classified by Reporters Without Borders for years as an "Enemy of the Internet," Iran continues to impose draconian restrictions on the Internet and netizens. Censorship is supposed to protect the public from immoral content but it covers political content as well. In fact, it is easier to access porn sites that censored online content critical of the regime.

Cyber-attacks continue

According to the information gathered by Reporters Without Borders, the email accounts of around 100 Iranians, mostly journalists or political activists, were the targets of cyber-attacks during September and October. And the authorities are still using such methods as man-in-the-middle attacks to intercept data sent to websites via supposedly secure https connections.

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