The Faces of Iran’s Imprisoned Journalists

The Islamic Republic ranks as one of the leading regimes terrorizing the press.

"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.

Shahidi suffers from a heart condition that requires medication and physician’s guidance.  She and her family requested that she be given the proper medical attention, particularly given that her condition has worsened while in prison, according to sources close to the Shahidi family. In late October, she was released on medical leave but was brought back to the prison after two weeks.  Soon after, she began a hunger strike leading to her hospitalization.  She now suffers from rheumatism, lower back pain, intestinal problems, and a severe drop in blood pressure.

Weeks after the election, Shahidi was arrested in the midst of protests and was held without charge.  Following interrogation and alleged beatings and threats of execution, she was released on bail in November and within a month was sentenced to six years for “gathering and colluding with intent to harm state security” and one year for “propaganda against the system,” according to Amnesty International who has documented the details of her case.

Shahidi had been a prolific journalist in Iran. After what close friends call a "messy divorce," she moved with her daughter to London where she was studying to earn a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Her imprisonment has been contested by several human rights organizations, and “Free Hengameh Shahidi” groups on Facebook are demanding her release.  A petition online with 325 signatories was directed toward Iran’s judiciary committee but fell on deaf ears.  Most recently, was launched by the Marze Por Gohar, Iranians for a Secular Republic political organization who have stated that they will gift the website to Shahidi to continue her journalistic work once she is released, as her previous site was disabled by the regime.  Their campaign altered the traditional "Free Hengameh Shahidi" into “We will free Hengameh Shahidi,” as to not make any futile requests from the Iranian government, the group said.

There are many nameless journalists like Shahidi who are silently withering away in Iran’s prisons for simply doing their jobs.  Just last week Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, head of Iran’s Journalists' Association and the former editor of several reformist daily papers was sentenced to 16 months in jail for mocking President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and undermining the Islamic Republic. Shamsolvaezin had been jailed for two months for his criticism of the regime in the aftermath of the election. This month the government went after Iran's central reformist newspaper Shargh (West). The paper’s financial sponsor, three editors and a writer were all arrested in what the regime cited as “security-related crimes,” according to Tehran’s prosecutor.

I called one of my sources in Iran, a secularist journalist, who, for obvious reasons, most importantly for her security, did not want her name mentioned.  When I asked her about Shahidi, she put the case into perspective.

“Hengameh Shahidi is a reformist. She wants to see reform within the regime and this is her fate. Now you can imagine our predicaments as secularists.”

This journalist brings up a valid argument about relativity in the regime’s method of operating. Before the election, the government had long targeted the anti-establishment secularists and radicals demanding regime change.  Now their attention has turned toward a new threat, those seeking reform.