360° Analysis

Upcoming Election Explains Iran’s Crackdown on Journalists


April 13, 2013 07:11 EDT

Fearing unrest and anti-government demonstrations similar to those after the 2009 election, the Iranian regime began cracking down on journalists and political activists this January.

Arrests and newspaper bans are a normal part of a journalist’s life in Iran. It was always like this, even before the 1979 Revolution. However, since the controversial re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, media freedom has degraded significantly in Iran, which ranks 174th out of 179 countries on the 2013 Press Freedom Index. In recent months, the government has arrested ten journalists in a single night, raided newspaper offices, broken down the doors of journalists' homes, and arrested them without warrants.

The latest wave of arrests started on January 26 with the arrest of two Iranian journalists. Everything was normal about these arrests: intelligence service andplain clothes officers raided the journalists’ homes at midnight, searched them, seized laptops and written documents, and took the journalists to the infamous Evin prison. This is the typical way of arresting journalists in the country.

The next evening, plain clothes officers ransackedthe offices of five newspapers, weekly publications and websites. In addition, they arrested 12 journalists, recorded video footage of the newspaper staff, and confiscated documents and hard drives. The situation was not normal anymore.

For three days, little was known of the journalists’ whereabouts; no statements were released by the Intelligence Ministry or the Revolutionary Guard indicating the reason for the arrests; and there was no information regarding the intelligence service that arrested them. The only clear point was that the arrests would continue.

Two more journalists were arrested the day after the raid on the news offices. Many others have since been called in for questioning, and at least one was promptly arrested. The situation has escalated; journalists in Iran had never before experienced such significant harassment.

Targeting Journalists Allegedly Linked to Foreign Media

In a news conference one week before the arrests, Prosecutor-General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei threateningly said: “Reliable information has reached me that certain journalists in Iran are collaborating with Westerners and counter-revolutionaries based abroad.” It seems that his words foreshadowed the fate of the sixteen journalists. Three days after their arrest, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry issued a statement accusing the journalists of collaborating with Persian-speaking media outside Iran and warned other journalists that more arrests might take place.

The government’s intimidation tactics appear to be part of a larger initiative that has not been limited to journalists working inside the country. In recent months, Iranian intelligence services have called in for questioning the family members of journalists working in exile for BBC Persian and Voice of America (VOA). The government intends to pressure the journalists to stop working for these news organizations, which are popular in Iran and also critical of the regime. 

For the same reason, false websites, blogs and Facebook accounts have been created for journalists and reporters at BBC Persian and VOA, and used to support accusations of misconduct and anti-revolutionary activity. Government-sponsored websites and news agencies inside Iran have also used information from these false websites as proof of the BBC and VOA’s anti-revolutionary nature.

Maintaining Control for the Upcoming Election

Iran’s harassment of journalists within and outside of its borders is part of an effort to maintain control ahead of the upcoming presidential election in June. The regime does not wish to repeat the events of the last presidential election.

In 2009, the government arrested political activists in response to unrest sparked by the re-election of Ahmadinejad. The government also began arresting journalists after realizing that arresting political activists was insufficient as the journalists continued to provoke unrest by publicizing the activists’ arrests. In addition, it shut down two major reformist newspapers after they published articles about election fraud as well as the torture and sexual harassment of detained demonstrators.

Now, a few months before the next presidential election, most of the political activists are still in prison, and pro-reform journalists are working under severe censorship,  with deeply limited freedom. This time the Iranian regime is not waiting until the problems occur. It is trying to preempt any criticism or attempt to startanother social movement.

In addition to ensuring control during and after the election, the Iranian government is also concerned with preventing anti-regime rhetoric in the month prior to the vote, when the government traditionally opens the political climate and gives its people more freedom.

Using Fear as a Tactic

Although the government’s motives for the brutal crackdown on journalists in January are clear, one question remains unanswered: why did the government not choose an easier way to stop journalists from criticising the regime, such as banning newspapers? The regime can close any newspaper with its extremely undemocratic media law but instead decided to arrest sixteen journalists in three days and to have significant news coverage of the arrests both inside and outside of the country.

It seems that the Iranian government is trying to spread a wave of fear among the people, and show that it will not tolerate any kind of opposition. It is doing so not only by cracking down on journalists but also by enacting stronger punishments against other arrested individuals and publicizing them more widely.

In January, two thieves were executed on the streets of Tehran, and another had his fingers cut off in Shiraz, the sixth most populous city in Iran. Both events were unprecedented. Public hangings in Tehran are rare, and the thieves were convicted of only minor crimes. Additionally, even though Islamic law dictates that the hands of a thief be amputated, Iranian judges have historically avoided this punishment.

Not only were the punishments extreme, they were also highly publicized. Official TV channels and government-supported newspapers and websites covered the stories. In addition, the head of the judicial system in an interview emphasized the need to strengthen punishments for criminals, including petty thieves.

Significant publicity was also afforded to the story of Iranian blogger Sattar Beheshti, who died in custody in early November 2012, shortly after he was arrested by plain clothes police officers. His death received full coverage on Persian news channels, and members of the parliament called for an inquiry to investigate the blogger’s death.

Parliament’s investigation seemed out of character, since the government covered up similar incidentsin 2009. The result of the investigation was inconclusive, but the investigation fulfilled its purpose of reminding everyone in Iran that it is possible to die in custody.

The Iranian government’s intimidation of the general population reflects an important lesson it learned during the 2009 demonstrations: after widespread arrests of activists, journalists and university students, it was the general public who continued the protests. By combining its current crackdown on journalists with its intimidation tactics, the government hopes to send a message to intellectuals, journalists and average citizens alike.

After the brutal crackdown in 2009, the Iranian regime has become confident in its ability to control critical situations but also does not wish to follow the same path as it did four years ago. As a result, the government has resorted to physical and psychological harassment in order to preemptively silence its people and maintain its power.

[Note: The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous and has used a pseudonym.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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