The Iranian regime is one of the world’s worst persecutors of journalists and suppressors of journalism. Tehran imprisons, harasses, and surveils journalists and their families; censors reporting—both directly and by intimidating journalists into self-censoring; and prevents the dissemination of journalism by blocking access to social media and jamming satellite-television signals. Iran’s war on journalists and journalism reflects the Islamic Republic’s fear of public knowledge of—and resistance to—its systemic malfeasance, mismanagement, and repression.
More than 40 journalists remained imprisoned as of May 13, 2020, according to the human rights website JournalismIsNotACrime.com. Members of the press were frequently arrested after reporting on topics considered touchy by the regime, including: widespread protests; the status of the novel coronavirus in Iran and the regime's response; the IRGC's missile strike on a Ukrainian airline jet over Tehran; government entities such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Guardian Council, and courts; corruption; women’s rights; mistreatment of minorities and detainees; labor issues; earthquake-relief activities; and other social and cultural tensions. In some cases, the authorities detained journalists without warning and would not admit to holding them in custody.
Journalists in jail are subjected to torture and other human-rights violations, including extended solitary confinement and denial of family visits and access to health care and legal counsel. Journalists and others charged with crimes against national security may only select an attorney from a government-approved list. The CPJ reported in 2013 that 65 percent of imprisoned journalists were housed in Evin Prison, which is notorious for subjecting inmates to torture, beatings, harsh interrogations, and mock executions.
Charges brought against journalists include:
Journalists convicted of such crimes have been sentenced to prison terms (often lengthy), lashes, and/or internal exile, and have been prohibited from continuing to work in their chosen profession.
One of the Iranian regime’s most famous hostages was U.S. journalist Jason Rezaian, a former Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post. Rezaian and his wife, fellow journalist Yeganeh Salehi, were arrested in 2014. Salehi was released on bail three months later, but Rezaian was held captive for 544 days at Evin Prison. He was sentenced to an undisclosed prison term in 2015. Tehran released Rezaian and three other American hostages in 2016 in exchange for U.S. clemency to or dismissal of charges against 21 Iranian nationals.
Current hostage Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen, arrested in 2016, was a project manager for the Reuters news agency’s charitable branch, the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Tehran’s prosecutor general stated that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested for directing “a BBC Persian online journalism course which was aimed at recruiting and training people to spread propaganda against Iran.” However, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s CEO said that Zaghari-Ratcliffe “is not a journalist and has never trained journalists at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 on undisclosed charges and presently languishes in Evin Prison. The authorities have repeatedly thrown Zaghari-Ratcliffe into solitary confinement and denied her medical care and access to her family and legal counsel. As the novel coronavirus ravaged Iran and particularly endangered inmates living in the appalling conditions of the Iranian prison system, the regime temporarily released her and tens of thousands of other prisoners in the spring of 2020. On May 20, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family tweeted that her medical furlough had essentially been extended indefinitely—until the regime decides whether to grant her clemency.
The Iranian regime routinely harasses domestic and foreign journalists and their Iran-based families in order to coerce members of the press to self-censor. Intelligence and judiciary officials have summoned the family members of Iranian journalists working abroad and conveyed that the journalists must immediately “stop collaborating with enemy media.” The regime also commonly imprisons, freezes and seizes the assets of, demotes (if government employees), or confiscates the passports of journalists’ relatives to pressure members of the press to self-censor. Additionally, the authorities have forced family members to go on state television and slander journalists to whom they are related. RSF reported in October 2019 that it had documented at least 25 cases of regime pressure on journalists based abroad, or their families, in the past year. Tehran also seeks to impede journalism by harassing Iran-based sources for international outlets to impede journalism.
Additionally, Iranian journalists based abroad receive death threats. The director of Radio Farda, a U.S. government-funded outlet broadcasting to Iranians in Farsi, said that “sometimes [a death threat] includes information that only members of the [Iranian] intelligence services could know.”
In 2017, the Iranian regime intensified its harassment of BBC Persian Television—the BBC’s Farsi-language service, which is banned by Tehran—by opening a criminal investigation into over 150 current or former BBC staff or their relatives and freezing their Iran-based assets. In an internal survey of BBC Persian Television staff, 86 of the 96 survey takers said they had been harassed and 45 claimed their parents were interrogated. In 2019, the regime threatened Iranian journalists working for the BBC in Britain, telling their relatives living in Iran that unless the journalists quit, they would be “snatched off the streets” of London and brought back to Iran.
Tehran similarly threatened journalists at Iran International, a London-based, Farsi-language news network. Iran’s intelligence ministry stated that employment with Iran International is “proof of collaboration in terrorist actions with the enemies of Iran,” and acknowledged that it has “monitored and identified all movements and actions” of the channel’s employees and will punish those who “serve foreigners” and “betray the country.”
These are no idle threats coming from the Iranian regime. In 2019, IRGC agents reportedly kidnapped exiled Iranian refugee, activist, and journalist Ruhollah Zam and brought him back to Iran. The Times of London reported that a female Iranian intelligence agent persuaded him to go to Iraq, where he was abducted and taken to Iran. Zam openly sought the overthrow of the Islamic Republic and ran Telegram channels spreading information to Iranians protesting the regime and encouraging viewers to join demonstrations. He also published controversial materials undermining the regime, including documents revealing government corruption and malfeasance. The IRGC posted news of Zam’s arrest on his Telegram channel, as well as a photo of Zam in captivity, with the caption “This is just the beginning.” The regime forced Zam to confess on Iranian television to engaging in “counter-revolutionary” actions at the direction of France.
The Iranian government surveils domestic and foreign journalists, including via hacking and phishing attacks reportedly often carried out by IRGC-affiliated groups. Radio Farda’s Hannah Kaviani said that reporters based in Iran “are under surveillance 24/7 and so is [their] work.”
Nariman Gharib, who works for Manoto, a Farsi-language, London-headquartered satellite news channel based in London, stated that he and many of his colleagues, or their family members, have received anonymous threats or phishing attempts. Gharib said hackers focus their attacks against journalists’ family members because the journalists will often refrain from disclosing the attacks out of fear of retaliation against their loved ones.
The Islamic Republic directly censors journalism that crosses red lines. The regime has prohibited domestic- and foreign-based journalists from covering anti-government protests; required that journalists only use official government data and sources about the spread of the novel coronavirus in Iran and refrain from investigative reporting or seeking information from other sources; and forced news outlets to parrot Tehran’s initial attempt to cover up its downing of a Ukrainian jetliner in January of 2020 by claiming the plane crashed due to mechanical failure.
Domestic media outlets receive harsh scrutiny from the regime, and Tehran has repeatedly suspended or shuttered critical news media. For example, in May of 2019, the government suspended the operations of weekly magazine Seda after the latter called for “high-level engagement” between the U.S. and Iran.
Journalists also cannot operate legally in Iran without getting government accreditation, which is frequently frozen or rescinded. The regime has outright prohibited some foreign agencies from reporting in Iran, and has denied entry to certain foreign journalists and expelled others. The regime conditioned allowing a BBC correspondent to operate in Iran on the BBC’s agreement not to share its reporting materials with BBC Persian Television. Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance obliges international journalists seeking Iranian visas to first present details of their planned travel and subjects of their proposed reporting, and to work with local “minders.” Former Washington Post Iran bureau chief and hostage Jason Rezaian wrote in August of 2019 that the ministry had ceased issuing permits to foreign members of the press.
Beginning in February of 2019, the regime barred New York Times Tehran bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink from reporting in Iran. His wife, photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian, was also prohibited from working. Erdbrink did not tweet for over a year, and his work was not published again until April of 2020 when, tweeting that he was “Back in Europe for a while,” he wrote a Times article about his native Netherlands. As of May of 2020, Erdbrink has not been published on Iran since February of 2019, though the biography on his Twitter account still lists him as “Tehran bureau chief.”