Freedom of the Press
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Press freedom in Iran deteriorated in 2005 as conservative leaders in the regime continued to crack down on reformist publications and journalists through arrests, detentions, harassment, and closures focused increasingly on internet-based media. While the constitution provides for freedom of opinion and of the press, in practice the government severely restricts these rights. Iran's vaguely worded 2000 Press Law forbids the publication of ideas contrary to Islamic principles or detrimental to public rights, and violators are punished harshly. Article 500 of the penal code states that "anyone who undertakes any form of propaganda against the state...will be sentenced to between three months and one year in prison" and leaves "propaganda" undefined. Under Article 513, offenses deemed to be an "insult to religion" can be punished by death or imprisonment for up to five years, and "insult" is similarly undefined. Other articles provide sentences of up to two years in prison, up to 74 lashes, or a fine for those convicted of intentionally creating "anxiety and unease in the public's mind," spreading "false rumors," writing about "acts that are not true," or criticizing state officials. As a result, self-censorship is common. Iran's judiciary frequently denies accused journalists due process by referring their cases to closed-door revolutionary courts, and the Preventive Restraint Act is used regularly to temporarily ban publications without legal proceedings.
The Office of the Supreme Leader and the Iranian judiciary, led by Saeed Mortazavi, Tehran's chief prosecutor, continued in 2005 to crack down on critical voices, ordering the arrest of dozens of journalists and writers and closing numerous publications. Imprisoned journalists have complained of solitary confinement and torture. Akbar Ganji-a well-known writer sentenced in 2001 to six years in prison for "spreading propaganda" and "collecting confidential state documents to jeopardize state security"-engaged in a hunger strike to protest his lack of medical treatment while in prison. In May, Iranian newspapers published Ganji's account of the physical and mental torture he had experienced. As a result, judicial authorities released Ganji for one week so he could seek treatment for back pain and asthma. Ganji returned to prison in June, three days after Mortazavi signed an arrest warrant claiming Ganji was a fugitive for overstaying his furlough. In August, officials detained Abolfazl Fateh, director of the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), and asked him to explain why the ISNA had published remarks by Ganji's wife. The week before, Mortazavi had summoned Fateh because the ISNA had reported human rights lawyer and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi's criticism of the judiciary for barring her from visiting Ganji, who is her client. Fateh was eventually freed on bail.
Since 2000, the Iranian government has forcibly closed or banned more than 100 publications. With the current conservative domination of government, this tactic has continued, focusing primarily on pro-reformist media outlets. In March, the judiciary closed the monthly magazine Jame-e-No because it missed an issue; its license had required it to publish monthly. Fatemeh Kamal, the magazine's license holder, told the Committee to Protect Journalists she believed the real reason for the closure was her marriage to human rights activist and journalist Emadolddin Baghi. In June, Mortazavi banned the newspapers Aftab, Eqbal, Etemaad, and Hayat-e-No for publishing an open letter from reformist cleric Mehdi Karoubi in which he charged military organizations with intervening illegally in support of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential election. Aftab, Etemaad, and Hayat-e-No resumed publication the following day, but Mortazavi indefinitely suspended Eqbal's publication license.
In a country where ethnic Arabs make up less than 3 percent and Kurds constitute less than 7 percent of the roughly 67 million citizens, government intimidation and harassment of journalists who cover minority issues continued to be a problem. In April, Iranian authorities closed Al-Jazeera's Tehran bureau after the satellite station reported that three ethnic Arabs from Iran's southwestern province had died in clashes with security forces. Yossef Azizi-Banitorouf, a prominent reformist Arab Iranian author, was arrested in April for holding a press conference for foreign journalists on ethnic Arab unrest. He was released without charge on June 28. Authorities detained several Kurdish-Iranian journalists and human rights activists following August 2 demonstrations in Sanandaj, the capital of Iran's Kurdistan province. The following day, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance closed Ashti, a Kurdish-language daily, and Asou, a bilingual (Kurdish and Persian) weekly.
Over the past several years, the ongoing media crackdown has led many journalists and dissidents to turn to the internet to circumvent official control of print media. However, starting in 2004, the judiciary (relying on unaccountable intelligence and security forces) began to target online journalists, bloggers, and technical support staff in an effort to quash this flourishing new medium. By the end of 2005, all the online writers detained in the 2004 group had been released except Mojtaba Saminejad, who was arrested in October 2004 and sentenced to two years in prison. All the prisoners had been held in solitary confinement in a secret detention center, subjected to torture, and denied access to lawyers or medical care. In January, Arash Sigarchi, former editor of Gilan-e Emrouz and a blogger who frequently criticized the government and protested the detention of fellow internet writers, was arrested from his home in northern Iran. He had given interviews to the BBC World Service and the U.S.-based Radio Farda days earlier. In February, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison on charges of espionage, "aiding and abetting hostile governments and opposition groups," endangering national security, and insulting the supreme leader. Authorities released him on bail in March, pending the resolution of his appeal. In February, following a secret trial held without his lawyer, Mohammad Reza Nasab Abdullahi, a university student, human rights activist, editor of a student newspaper, and blogger, was sentenced to six months in prison for posting a blog entry criticizing the government's repression of "civil and personal rights and liberties." On March 2, his wife, 26-year-old university student Najmeh Oumidparvar, was arrested after posting messages from her husband on her own blog and giving an interview to a German radio station. She was four months pregnant. Oumidparvar was freed on bail 24 days later.
Iran is home to more than 20 daily newspapers, though most Iranians do not read newspapers on a regular basis. Instead, more than 80 percent of the population receives their news from television. The government directly maintains a monopoly over all broadcast media, which present only official political and religious viewpoints. Although satellite dishes that receive foreign broadcasts are forbidden, an increasing number of people own them. More than 7 million Iranians were able to access the internet in 2005. Despite considerable efforts on the part of the government to control the content of, and access to, the internet, Iranian websites continue to express opinions that the country's print media would never carry. The government has blocked thousands of websites, including sites that criticize government policies or report stories the government does not wish to see published. It has also sought to limit the spread of blogs by blocking popular websites that offer free publishing tools for blogs.