There is no sign from the Iranian authorities that they intend to improve their appalling human rights record. (Supplied)

March 16, 2019

From journalists to activists to everyday people, no one is safe from being detained under vague laws that criminalize most forms of expression in Iran. The situation is only getting worse, says Amnesty’s Raha Bahreini.

One year after Iranian political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam was honored with the DW Freedom of Speech Award, DW’s Ole Tangen Jr. spoke with  human rights lawyer and Amnesty International’s researcher on Iran, Raha Bahreini, about the current situation in the country.

DW: I found this quote from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year, in which he said: “In this country there is freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of choice. Then he continued, “However, freedom in the Islamic Republic, like in other parts of the world, has a framework.” In light of that, I wonder how you would answer the question: Is there free speech in Iran?

Raha Bahreini: The severity of the situation when it comes to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly is well-documented and well-established. The Iranian authorities have heavily suppressed the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. And our research at Amnesty International shows that, in fact, they have intensified their crackdown on these essential rights.

Basically there are hundreds of people who have been imprisoned unjustly because they have simply exercised their right to freedom of expression. These include peaceful political dissidents,  journalists, online media workers, students, filmmakers, musicians as well as human rights defenders.

By human rights defenders, I mean people who are exercising their right to freedom of expression and association in order to defend and promote human rights. They include lawyers, women’s rights activists, minority rights activists and trade unionists. All these different groups of human rights defenders have been at the receiving end, suffocating under oppression. In recent years, Amnesty International has documented the growing number of human rights defenders who have been sentenced to hard prison camps, in many cases for more than a decade.

So all of this is to say that the Iranian authorities cannot deny their appalling record in the area of freedom of expression and their denial is by no way accepted by the international community that has consistently expressed concern about the violations of the right to freedom of expression in Iran.

Has the crackdown on these rights gotten worse or better or stayed the same?

Our research shows that since 2013, the situation of human rights defenders in the country has deteriorated in many ways. The Iranian authorities have lowered their threshold for invoking national security charges against people who exercise their right to freedom of expression in order to express dissent or to defend human rights. Simple activities such as giving media interviews, reporting on human rights abuses, connecting the families of political prisoners or writing letters of solidarity have been used as evidence of national security offenses. Consequently, after very unfair trials, authorities have imposed heavy prison terms like 10 years, 15 years and even 20 years.

Iran Nasrin Sotudeh 2013 (picture-alliance/dpa/A. Taherkenareh)Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Soutoudeh was sentenced in March 2019 to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes

In addition to lowering the threshold for invoking national security offenses, we have also noted a considerable increase in the length of prison sentences that the authorities have issued.

Structurally, there are serious flaws in our the legal system that allows for the criminalization of freedom of expression and there are a series of crimes that criminalize freedom of speech that should not even exist as they are not in the penal code.

These include crimes such as spreading propaganda or insulting the supreme leader or inciting the authorities or insulting Islamic sanctities. Amnesty International has consistently called for the Iranian authorities to revoke the articles that define these crimes. And then there are the vaguely worded national security offenses such as gathering and colluding against national security. They are so vague that any peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression can also be interpreted by the Iranian authorities to repress those who criticize them.

We know that social media sites Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all blocked in Iran. Authorities also tried to block the popular messaging app Telegram but were unsuccessful and allowed it again. What is the situation now?

For many months in 2017, there was a back-and-forth between the government and the judiciary over Telegram. The judiciary was very keen for the application to be banned and ultimately, in April 2018, Telegram was banned.

At the moment, millions of Iranians continue to use it but they have to use circumvention tools as officially, the application is no longer allowed. Other social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube remain blocked and currently there are conversations in the state media that even Instagram must not be tolerated.

We also have censorship of all forms of media and jamming of foreign satellite television channels and that has been going on for many years.

What is the situation on the ground for journalists and media workers?

Journalists and online media workers are also arbitrarily detained and several are serving prison sentences; many others have received flogging sentences. Just in 2018, Amnesty International documented cases of several journalists who were flogged after being convicted of spreading lies. That is absolutely outrageous.

Flogging is a prohibited form of punishment under international law as it amounts to torture and to subject someone to this torture simply because of journalism is really shocking. One journalist in the city of Khoy was flogged 74 times.

If everyday people are caught with Telegram on their phone can they also be arrested?

We haven’t noticed this trend but people are at risk of having their phones confiscated and being subjected to questioning for the content of their phone. What we have noticed more is that the authorities go after the administrators of the channels on Telegram that are very popular and where messages are posted that the authorities deem unacceptable. These administrators have been subjected to lengthy prison sentences.

Is there any hope, any bright light on the horizon in terms of free expression in Iran?

At the moment there is no sign from the Iranian authorities that they intend to improve their appalling human rights record in this area. We have noticed that people are determined to claim their rights more and more including workers, students and civil society activists, who are taking to the streets and to social media to express their demands.

And there are real fears that the authorities will respond to this growing unrest and these growing protests with an even more vicious crackdown on the civil society. Because of this fear, Amnesty is calling on other governments that are in dialogue with Tehran, as well as the UN human rights bodies, to raise concern about the crackdown on civil society. We are also urging them to release all prisoners of conscience in the country who have been detained simply because of exercising their right to freedom of expression and to basically impart on the authorities that this systematic violation of human rights is not tolerated.


About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.