In Iran, crackdowns on dissent and journalism

On September 16, Mahsa Amini, a twenty-two-year-old woman, died in Kasra Hospital, in Tehran. Amini had been arrested by Iran’s morality police for improperly covering her head; while in police custody, Amini fell into a coma from which she did not awaken. Her family has challenged official accounts of Amini’s death and alleged that she was beaten by authorities; reports on her death have included similar testimony from witnesses to Amini’s arrest. 

Among the first reporters to detail Amini’s death was Niloufar Hamedi, a reporter for the Tehran-based newspaper Shargh. On the day of Amini’s death, Hamedi shared a photo of members of Amini’s family embracing in the hospital; the photo was then circulated widely. The following day, September 17, protesters at Amini’s funeral in her hometown of Saqez, a city in Kurdistan Province, met with resistance from armed forces. Protests quickly spread from Iran’s Kurdish regions throughout the country—fueled, the New York Times reported, by “a range of grievances: a collapsing economy, brazen corruption, suffocating repression and social restrictions.” On September 22, agents from Iran’s Ministry of Information raided Hamedi’s home, confiscated her laptop and phone, and arrested her. Hamedi’s Twitter account was suspended; her husband, Mohammad Hossein Ajorlou, tweeted that Hamedi is being held in Evin Prison, and has been interrogated and placed in solitary confinement. Hossein and Mohammed Ali Kamfirouzi, Hamedi’s lawyer, are tweeting updates about Hamedi’s status. 

As of late last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists had counted twenty-eight journalists arrested in Iran since protests began. (On a broader scale, state-backed news agency Tasmin reported that authorities have arrested twelve hundred people in connection to protests; other outlets have reported that dozens have been killed and injured.) Many of those journalists—including Elahe Mohammed, who was arrested after covering Amini’s funeral—were taken to the same prison as Hamedi. “Evin Prison has become the go-to place for the authorities to punish journalists,” Sherif Mansour, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, tells CJR. 

Since the start of the demonstrations, authorities have cut off mobile internet access, shutting down service to WhatsApp and Instagram. The internet blackouts have slowed efforts by organizations such as CPJ to verify journalists’ arrests; when internet access is temporarily restored, Mansour says, “we’re able to receive these calls from family members, lawyers, and colleagues, which is also thanks to how tech-savvy the population in Iran has become, including journalists who had to report on earlier protests in which the government shut down the internet.” 

Threats against press freedom in Iran have long played out along lines of ethnicity and gender. “Women have a significant presence in Iran’s press and newspapers, but they are targeted for all types of harassment including hacking, email phishing, threats of rape and murder,” Fahimeh Khezr Heidari, an Iranian journalist who worked in the country for ten years before leaving due to threats, says. CPJ’s Mansour says that gathering information on journalist arrests in the Kurdish regions of Iran is “more difficult, because a lot of those journalists are not as well known.” In a 2008 report, Amnesty International noted that “Kurdish human rights defenders, community activists and journalists face arbitrary arrest and prosecution,” with some facing “torture, grossly unfair trials before Revolutionary Courts and the death penalty.” Heidari tells CJR that being a journalist in Iran’s Kurdish regions is “a lot harder than being a journalist in Tehran because, just by being Kurdish, you’ve already been accused by the government as being a separatist.”

In the past, detained journalists have been made to denounce protests on state-owned broadcasts in order to be released. As protests continue, Heidari fears that the government’s retaliation against the journalists covering them will be worse this time. “People this time didn’t protest for jobs, for rising prices, or the left or right,” she said. “It was about life.”

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Below, more on journalism and the protests in Iran:

  • In November 2019, after the Iranian government announced a sharp increase to gas prices, protests took place across the country; security forces killed more than three hundred people, according to a report by Amnesty International, and the government implemented an internet blackout considered to be the largest in the country’s history. Rest of World reported on efforts by diaspora Iranians to circumvent internet blocks. “Nine months after the November blackout, Iranians still live in fear of another all-out shutdown,” wrote Mehr Nadeem. “As authorities tighten their hold on internet access, diaspora-led companies are filling the gap for Iranians who are seeking a way to bypass censors. The circumvention tools, created largely by diaspora entrepreneurs, are becoming increasingly critical as they face a crackdown at home and the bite of American-led sanctions online.”
  • For Wired, Matt Burgess writes about 1500tasvir, an Instagram account run by multiple users both inside and outside of Iran. The account, which launched in 2019, is posting video documentation of protests throughout the country. “People on the ground send the videos—in some areas, patchy connections are available and fixed Wi-Fi connections still work​​—and the group checks the content before posting it online,” Burgess writes. “The group says it is receiving more than 1,000 videos per day, and its Instagram account has more than 450,000 followers.” Access Now, an NGO defending digital rights, told Wired its partners have reported that “text messages containing Amini’s name have been blocked.”
  • Yeganeh Rezaian, an Iranian journalist and senior researcher with CPJ, spoke with her colleagues about the effects of journalist arrests on protest coverage. “Security forces create an environment of fear in neighborhoods when they raid journalists’ homes, scaring families and neighbors away to make sure no one reports the arrests or talks to the media, especially the Persian-language media in exile,” she said. In 2014, Rezaian herself was imprisoned and held in solitary confinement for seventy-two days while working as a journalist in the country. “Female journalists…have been undeterred by the threats of reprisal from authorities,” Rezaian said. “It’s one of the reasons that this moment feels different.”

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Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.

TOP IMAGE: Two Iranian young men use their smartphones to look at WhatsApp app in Tehran on September 23, 2022. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via AP)