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.
Iran is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom Index, down from 173rd in 2020 and 170th in 2019.
At least 99 journalists remained imprisoned as of November 2021, 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, 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 Committee to Protect Journalists 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.
Former 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 incarcerated in Evin Prison. The authorities repeatedly threw Zaghari-Ratcliffe into solitary confinement and denied her medical care and access to her family and legal counsel. As COVID-19 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 September 8, 2020, while Zaghari-Ratcliffe was furloughed at her parents’ home in Tehran, and reportedly about six months before her original prison sentence would end, she appeared before Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. The court told her she would be tried on new charges on September 13, five days later. However, on September 13, at the last minute, the court postponed Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s trial without providing a reason. The government put her on trial again on March 14 for the new charge of “spreading propaganda against the regime.” Specifically, the regime accused her of participating in a demonstration outside Iran’s embassy in the U.K. in 2009 and speaking with the BBC’s Persian service.
The second trial lasted one day. In late April 2021, Nazanin was sentenced to a year in prison and prohibited from leaving Iran for a year thereafter, but was not directed to return to prison by the authorities.
On March 16, 2022, the Iranian regime released Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her fellow hostage Anousheh Ashoori (also a British-Iranian) into the custody of the British government, and the two left Iran. The two were freed after the U.K. paid Iran $530 million to erase a debt dating back to the 1970s.
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.
Zam was tried in February 2020 in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. Zam was reportedly charged with either 15 or 17 counts, including “sowing corruption on earth,” insulting “the sanctity of Islam,” and “conspiring with the US Government against the Islamic Republic of Iran”—all of which carry the death penalty—as well as having “committed offences against the country's internal and external security,” “complicity in provoking and luring people into war and slaughter,” “espionage for the French intelligence service,” “spying for Israeli intelligence services via the intelligence services of one of the countries in the region,” “establishment and administration of the Amad News channel and the Voice of People,” and “insulting Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei.”
An Iranian judiciary spokesman announced on June 30, 2020, that Zam had been convicted and sentenced to death for 13 counts, which were grouped together and treated as cases of “sowing corruption on earth.” He was also sentenced to life in prison for “several other charges,” which were unnamed. The regime executed Zam on December 12, 2020.
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 and Iranian law bans the spreading of information that the regime thinks is “damaging”—under which category the government has included, according to the State Department, “discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees.” Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance examines all potential publications before they are released and ban or edits them at will. The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency decided which main issues Iranian media should report on and instructed outlets accordingly.
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 the weekly magazine Seda after the latter called for “high-level engagement” between the U.S. and Iran.
Prior to Iran’s 2021 presidential election, the judiciary or intelligence ministry brought in at least 42 members of the press because of their election coverage. The regime put in place a number of restrictions on media coverage, including a ban on making “negative or critical comments about the election” or criticizing candidate Ebrahim Raisi, the eventual winner.
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, 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.
Iranian law prohibits private broadcasters, and the regime also bans the use of satellite dishes and, since 2003, jams foreign satellite television channels, including news outlets like BBC Persian Television and the Voice of America’s Farsi-language networks. The government, via its National Cyberspace Council, tries to obstruct online journalism further by blocking access to multiple social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, and WhatsApp, and banning circumvention software.
The regime also is continuing to operate and grow its “National Information Network” (SHOMA), essentially a national intranet that acts as an internet service provider while monitoring and controlling content on Iranian websites and keeps out foreign sources of information. Using SHOMA, Tehran outright shut down internet networks during the nationwide anti-regime demonstrations in late 2017 and early 2018 and in November 2019 demonstrations. Iranian Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi stated on November 18, 2019, that the shutdown was ordered by Iran’s national security council. Periodic internet outages in Iran also were reported during July 2021 demonstrations. The exceptions to these internet shutdowns included regime officials like Iran’s supreme leader, who continued to tweet while the internet was effectively shut down for the rest of the country.
Iran has a Basij “Cyber Council,” Cyber Police, and a Cyber Army –all presumed to be controlled by the IRGC—tasked with monitoring, identifying, and countering citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking sites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Legislation has been pending before Iran’s parliament entitled the “Regulatory System for Cyberspace Services Bill.” This internet protection bill, according to a letter from human rights groups, will “result in even further reductions in the availability of international internet bandwidth in Iran and violate the right to privacy and access to a secure and open internet.” The draft law also establishes a Secure Gateway Task Force which will include representatives from the armed forces and security agencies and will operate under the auspices of the National Center of Cyberspace. All technology companies will also be required to register representatives in Iran, and work with the Islamic Republic’s authorities in surveillance efforts. U.N. special rapporteurs have registered concerns.