June 18, 2021
Today an as-yet undeclared proportion of the Iranian electorate has gone to the polls to select the country’s next president, from an approved list of four. The reformist camp is still divided on the issue of whether to vote or not. But three days ago, the heads of no fewer than six so-called “reformist” media outlets gave a startling display of apparent support to conservative frontrunner Ebrahim Raeesi.
In a bizarre public meeting with Raeesi on Tuesday, June 15, the newspapermen heaped praise on Raeesi’s record in dealing with journalists as head of the judiciary. Mohammad Ali Vakili, editor-in-chief of the Ebtekar newspaper, claimed reformist media workers had experienced no “harassment” during his tenure.
He went on to clarify: “If reformist press journalists were summoned or arrested, as soon as their cases were followed up on, the judicial authorities would provide the necessary assistance within the shortest possible time and according to the law.”
Mansour Mozafari, the managing director of Aftab-e Yazd newspaper, also claimed many issues faced by the Iranian press had been solved during Raeesi’s tenure as chief justice. Mehdi Rahmanian, the managing director of Shargh, said his wife had observed their reporters had been summoned to court “less” in the past two years.
“My wife told me that she had gone to court less,” he said, “and they don’t put leg cuffs on the defendants like they used to… This shows that you are a good person.”
The comments have sparked disbelief both inside and outside Iran. The next day Pejman Mousavi, a journalist at Shargh, resigned in disgust. “Shame on my friends at the Saturday Shargh office,” he wrote on Twitter, “I’m dying at the beginning of the road, but I think some things are more important than staying on the road at any cost.”
The editors of Donya-e Eqtesad, Arman and Jahan-e Sanat were also present at the meeting. Representatives from ISNA news agency were also there, alongside other journalists including Ehsan Mazandarani, the former managing director of Farhikhtegan newspaper, and Nematollah Shahbazi, the secretary of Iran’s trade union for the managers of non-state newspapers.
In the aftermath Ali Mazinani, the managing director of Haft-e Sobh newspaper, criticized the display on social media. “I was shocked by the news that some newspaper and website managers met with Raeesi,” he said. “I wish they had invited us as well, so that we could at least have warned them that the consequences of this meeting would be borne by the whole community; that they would incite distrust in the media.”
He added: “I have reliable information that Mr. Vakili, the editor-in-chief of Ebtekar newspaper, was the initiator of this meeting. Why?”
Raeesi’s Record of Dealings with the Press as Judiciary Chief
As the editors did implicitly point out, the repression of journalists has in fact continued apace in Iran since Ebrahim Raeesi became chief justice in March 2019. Reporters have been stifled inside the country, but the judiciary has also targeted Persian-language media members abroad and harassed their families at home.
During Raeesi’s tenure, Alieh Motalebzadeh, a photographer and vice-president of the Defending Freedom of Press Association, was arrested and jailed for two years on security-related offences. She has been held in prison since October 11, 2020 and her request for a retrial in the designated court for media and political “crimes” was denied.
Keyvan Samimi, a journalist and editor of the monthly publication Iran-e Farda, has been serving a three-year prison sentence since December 7, 2020, while Khosro Sadeghi Boroujeni, a journalist and researcher, was summoned to begin serving a five-year prison sentence at Evin Prison in September 2020.
In December last year, the Iranian judiciary saw fit to execute a journalist who did not even reside in the country. Dissident Telegram channel founder Ruhollah Zam was lured into Iraq, kidnapped and brought back to Iran, whereupon the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to death without a fair trial, in violation of his most basic rights.
The clemency of Ebrahim Raeesi has not applied to these reporters – nor to dozens of others who were harassed and detained for reporting on such topics as the November 2019 protests, the downing of Flight 752, or the Islamic Republic’s non-handling of the coronavirus outbreak last year. The heads of several news agencies and newspapers have been summoned to the Culture and Media Court and pronounced guilty. The weekly Seda was banned by the Court on May 11, 2019 because it had published the image of an American warship.
Security Agencies Ramped up Pressure Ahead of Election
In fact, the Iranian establishment has been clamping down on wayward elements in the press in the run-up to today’s vote. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 42 reporters and information activists are known to have been summoned by the prosecutor’s office – which is under the direct supervision of Ebrahim Raeesi, the Ministry of Intelligence, and Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization – since the registration for presidential candidates began.
Many of the journalists were accused of either “criticizing” Raeesi or “encouraging non-voting and criticizing the election”, neither of which are crimes. These official interventions constitute a violation of their right to free expression and the free flow of information, and are as good an indicator as any of exactly what kind posture Raeesi would adopt as president with regard to media freedom.
On the same day the editors of the six reformist newspapers had rushed to meet with Raeesi, news broke that a director of another Telegram channel had been charged with 15 separate “crimes”. Ahmad Moradi, who runs a Kurdish nationalist channel and left the country eight years ago, was charged in absentia by the General and Revolutionary Courts of Sanandaj. If he returns home, he too could pay with his life.