The Faces of Iran’s Imprisoned Journalists

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“Around 70 journalists are now in the prisons of the Islamic Republic and many others, like me, are free on bail, lacking any security. We are afraid that anything that we write may be used as evidence of ‘propaganda against the system’ or ‘conspiracy against national security.’ My colleagues and I try to write as little as possible.” (Open letter from formerly imprisoned journalist Zhila Bani Yaghoob to the Head of Iran’s Judiciary Committee.)

In light of Iran’s recent political turmoil and continued disregard for non-proliferation provisions, a deep curiosity over Iran’s people and modern society has developed in the international community. The Iranian government has been arresting reporters for communicating with foreign media, writing about human rights violations, or speaking out against the government.   The growing trend in the imprisonment of journalists has led to a parallel trend in journalists escaping the country and never coming back.

Last week, a new report showed that ongoing crackdowns in Iran and other countries have driven the number of jailed journalists worldwide to a 14-year high.  Currently, 145 journalists are being held internationally, with Iran and China having the highest at 34 journalists each, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, although my sources in Iran tell me that number is about double.  Taking into account the dramatic population margins between Iran and China, Iran still maintains the highest number proportionally.

Following a long history of imprisoning journalists as a means of manipulating news coverage, the Iranian government has dramatically intensified the practice since the outbreak of demonstrations in the aftermath of the presidential election in June of 2009.  The government closed newspapers, blocked websites and arrested bloggers, photographers and journalists working on all platforms as the most secure method of censorship.

Underground websites, blogs and social networking sites became the new front of a political standoff between the people and the state, but the government quickly made it clear that dissidents would be suppressed. Some were arrested at the time of the protests and others were targeted at home or at work. Among the arrested were dozens of citizen journalists with active Facebook and Twitter accounts. Facing more serious prison sentences were journalists who were seen as political activists or mouthpieces of foreign or reformist interests. The statistics speak for themselves in describing the numbers and the zero tolerance against those communicating information, but the individuals are seldom talked about.

I recently came across the biography of a woman who is currently at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison serving a seven-year sentence for her work as a journalist and political activist. Hengameh Shahidi, 36, left her daughter behind in London to travel to Iran for the election. As a member of presidential-candidate Mehdi Karroubi’s National Trust Party, Shahidi came to act as an advisor on women’s issues for his campaign.

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