What’s it like to be a journalist in Iran? For decades, journalists and media workers have been censored, arrested, interrogated, and tortured for simply doing their job. Their families have faced intimidation and pressure. Government policy, religious ideology, and cultural taboos all play their part in silencing journalists in Iran.
To mark World Press Freedom Day, IranWire looks at what could happen if you are a journalist in one of the most hostile climates for press freedom in the world, Iran.
1.You could be arrested at work
Journalists working for newspapers and websites in Iran arrive at their offices hoping for a normal day at work: reporting the news, developing features, conducting interviews, fact-checking. But there is no such thing as “normal” day, as Hadi Heydari, a cartoonist working for Sharvand newspaper, knows all too well. The Revolutionary Guards arrived at his office on November 16, 2015 and arrested him in connection with a cartoon he drew called “Blindfolding.” He was taken to Evin Prison, where he was held for months before he was eventually released on April 26, 2016.
2. You can be jailed for doing your job
Iran’s judges routinely hand down arbitrary sentences to journalists, and sometimes it’s hard to know just how they decide prison terms. There aren’t hard and fast rules about how long journalists should spend in jail, but the judiciary is very clear on how it should treat people found guilty of being a threat to national security or “spreading propaganda against the regime.” Since anything a journalist writes or reports on can potentially be interpreted as these types of crimes, journalists often face long jail sentences. One columnist, Afarin Chitsaz, who writes about foreign policy for the newspaper Iran, has recently been sentenced to 10 years in prison, accused of collaborating with foreign governments.
3. You can be forced to confess
Just when you might think Chitsaz’s case couldn’t get much worse, her mother told reporters that Chitsaz was forced to make false confessions. “My daughter was beaten with a bottle of water to make her confess while she was blindfolded,” Maryam Azadpour told BBC Persian on April 29.
Chitsaz’s false confessions are not unusual in Iran. When journalists cover a story that goes against government policy, reports on a taboo subject, or insults establishment figures, they can face dire consequences, including being tortured until they agree to a false confession. In 2009, journalist and filmmaker (and director of IranWire and Journalism Is Not A Crime) Maziar Bahari was among the many journalists who were forced to confess to collaborating with Western countries and espionage following the controversial presidential election.
4. You might be held hostage
Having dual citizenship usually comes with some advantages, but this doesn’t work in Iran, especially not for journalists. Iranian authorities don’t accept dual nationality, but at the same time, they will exploit the fact that you hold two passports. Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American reporter for the Washington Post, was arrested along with his wife at their home in Tehran and held for 18 months in an Iranian prison. Rezaian was eventually released when Iran and the United States agreed on a prisoner swap in January 2016.
5. You can be forced into exile
And, for some Iranian journalists, serving time in prison is not the end of the story. Ahmad Zeidabadi served a six-year sentence, but after being released in 2015, he was sent to Gonabad, about a thousand kilometers from Tehran. Later he was given an amnesty and allowed to return to his family in Tehran, though the authorities did not specify why they changed their minds.
6. You can be prevented from leaving the country.
In late January 2011, Naeimeh Doostdar was stopped by security forces as her plane was just about to take off to Prague, where she had been due to attend a job interview with Radio Farda. They seized Doostdar’s passport and banned her from leaving Iran. Two weeks later, she was arrested.
“Banning me from leaving Iran and taking me off the plane was the worst thing that had ever happened to me,” Doostdar told Journalism is Not a Crime. “I had no idea what other passengers were thinking about me. Perhaps they thought I was a criminal or a murderer. Anytime I go to an airport the fear returns,” she said. She can’t shake the fear that someone might stop her from moving freely or traveling. “Even though I know that I haven’t done anything wrong, I’m nervous. Even now, once in a while I dream I am back in Iran and I am not allowed to leave.” Doostdar said she suffers from anxiety as a result of her ordeal.
7. You can be forced to leave the country
Many Iranian journalists have little choice but to leave the country. Thirty-three-year-old Solmaz Ikdar not only received two prison sentences for her work as a journalist; she was also banned from studying. Deprived of opportunities in her home country, Ikdar was forced to leave for a better life abroad in 2015, a decision she described as extremely painful.
“Leaving Iran without being able to return weighs heavily on me. I have deep roots in Iran. Pulling up these roots violently and leaving is without doubt very painful,” she told Journalism Is Not A Crime.
8. You can be banned from doing your job
Journalists who criticize the regime not only possibly face losing their job, they could actually be banned from working in journalism and writing altogether. Reformist journalist Reyhaneh Tabatabaei is serving a one-year prison sentence, and even when she is free she will not be allowed to join a political party or write for any newspaper or website for two years.
Others have been forced to say goodbye to their journalism career forever. Despite being back with his family in Tehran after returning from exile, Ahmad Zeidabadi has been given life-time ban on working as a journalist.
9. You can be arrested and interrogated — even if you’ve actually given up your job
Bahman Daroshafaei, a former employee of the BBC’s Persian service, left his job and returned to Iran in September 2014. But soon after, his passport was confiscated. Since his return, has been interrogated more than 40 times and eventually arrested on February 3, 2016.
He was released on bail after 20 days, but has no idea whether he might face further trouble in the future. "The men took him away,” Daroshafaei’s mother said when he was arrested. “They didn’t tell me where they were taking him, they didn’t tell me who they were, why they were taking him, or what they wanted from him." She appealed to President Rouhani to secure his release, and expressed her bitter frustration, saying that she had voted for Rouhani in the hopes that he would bring “hope and kindness” back to Iran. “My son has done no wrong,” she told him.
10. Your family could be targeted — harassed, imprisoned, or vilified
Having a brother, sister or parent in jail is extremely painful, but family members are never allowed to speak out about the pain. If they do, they face serious consequences. The health of blogger Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki has deteriorated in recent months, a situation that continues to be distressing for his family. Hoping that raising awareness about his son might help his case, his father spoke to the media about his concerns — and was himself sentenced to four months in prison. Update, May 4: Ronaghi-Maleki was released on bail on May 4. Though he is eligible for a pardon due to his health, it is not clear whether the Iranian authorities will grant it.
Some Iranian journalists do escape and have successful careers outside Iran. But this doesn’t mean their family is safe. Authorities arrested Davoud Asadi, the brother of journalist Houshang Asadi, who lives in France, in early November 2015. He was sentenced to five years in prison, found guilty of “gathering and colluding against national security.” Though Houshang Asadi works for Rooz Online — a website Iranian authorities believe to be the core of an “infiltration network” — Davoud Asadi has nothing to do with journalism. He has simply been punished for being related to a journalist.
11. You could be killed
Being a journalist is a dangerous business in Iran — as Jason Rezaian has said, “it’s like walking on a tightrope.” Just writing about what you think could put your life at risk. Blogger Sattar Beheshti, whose “My Life for My Iran” blog angered officials, died four days after he was arrested by Iran’s Cyber Police Unit in 2012. He had been tortured to death during interrogations.