Saba Azarpeik, a leading independent journalist and political correspondent for the newspaper Etemad, was arrested on Wednesday, May 28, in Tehran. Authorities detained her during a raid on the office of Tejarat-e Farda, a weekly for which Azarpeik also writes, but leveled no formal charges. The hardline website Kheybar Online had recently accused her of spying on the country’s hardline media.
Azarpeik had recently reported a series of articles examining the hardline movement to undermine the government of President Hassan Rouhani. Kheybar Online also alleged that she had close ties with the Britain-based journalist Masih Alinejad, whose "Stealthy Freedoms" Facebook campaign encouraging women across Iran to post photos of themselves without Islamic head covering deeply unnerved Iran’s conservative establishment.
On 20 May, in the aftermath of an anti-Rouhani rally called "We Are Anxious," Azarpeik published an article in which she interviewed Mohammad Sadegh Kooshky, a University of Tehran professor supportive of the movement behind the rally. Azarpeik’s questions were confrontational and seemed to assert that the rally’s objective was to tar and obstruct the Rouhani government. Her sharp questions angered Kooshky – the interview ran verbatim, documenting their sparring – and he told her “You are a little dictator as Napoleon would say.”
The interview concluded with Kooshky accusing Azarpeik of nurturing a hidden agenda. “I hope you publish this interview word for word,” he said, “so that your readers will understand your goal is to have me expelled from the university.” Azarpeik denied the charge and promised to print the interview word for word, a pledge that did not cool Kooshky’s anger. “If you print it exactly your journalistic credentials will be damaged because it would become clear how much you support Mr. Rouhani,” he said.
Some online sites have reported that Kooshky, in addition to his academic position, also works with the Ministry of Intelligence as a media expert.
The allegations against Azarpeik in Kheybar Online, which referred to her by her initials in the traditional manner of hardline Iranian media, a nominal nod to privacy, centered around her purported spying activities on behalf of the Rouhani government.
“Working in cooperation with a government department, ‘S.A.’ has apparently gathered private information about certain people active in the revolutionary media,” the site wrote. “She has contacted them under the pretext of writing reports but has been gathering information about how they work, the financial resources at their disposal, people who work there, etc. She has also an arrest record.”
Azarpeik reported earlier this year on her Facebook page that former President Ahmadinejad and his close ally Rahim Mashaei had launched websites to attack their political opponents, weaken the government of President Rouhani and sabotage the country’s nuclear negotiations.
Azarpeik was previously arrested in early 2013 when security forces detained a number of reformist journalists, and spent some weeks in Evin prison. When she was detained on that occasion, her mother said the officers who came to the house did not have a court order. When Azarpeik’s mother refused to open the door on those grounds, she said eight officers broke down the door, confiscated a number of Azarpeik’s belongings, and slapped her brother, recording all the while on video.
Reports on social media sites say Azarpeik’s mother is deeply in shock, and Azarpeik had written extensively on her Facebook page about her mother’s concern for her work as a journalist. After many visitors to her page posted their own concerns about her arrest and situation yesterday the page became “unavailable”.