Leading human rights organization Reporters Without Borders has identified Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a “predator of press freedom,” presenting an image of him alongside photographs of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and 33 other leaders who systematically violate citizens’ rights to free expression.
The "Press Freedom Predators' Gallery" also included one leader from a European Union country— Victor Orban of Hungary — andtwo women, Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam and Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina, feature on the list. Khamenei and the dozens of others are meanwhile referred to as “old tyrants”.
Commenting on the gallery, the organisation’s latest campaign to draw attention to the world’s worst press freedom violators, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi described the Leader as a killer of journalists and freedom of expression.
Reporters Without Borders’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, which evaluates the situation in 180 countries, ranks Iran at 174, with North Korea (179th) and Eritrea (180th) listed as the worst environments in the world for press freedom.
IranWire readers will be familiar with the Supreme Leader's record of violating the rights of journalists and censoring the media over his 32-year reign, including overseeing the arrest, torture and murder of thousands of Iranian journalists, bloggers and citizen journalists.
One of the most widely recognized periods of violations followed the disputed 2009 presidential election, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested against the results. Security forces and the judiciary, which are under the direct supervision of Khamenei, imprisoned and tortured dozens of journalists over the course of a year, and many journalists were forced to leave their country.
One of the most recent human rights violations against a journalist was the execution of Ruhollah Zam, the editor of the website and Telegram channel Amad News. He was executed in Tehran in December 2020 after being abducted in Iraq by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in October 2019.
The 1990s was a dark decade for journalists. These were the years of the so-called "chain murders", serial killings carried out by intelligence agents that targeted independent journalists, writers, translators, poets and political activists that opposed the regime. More than 80 people lost their lives in that bloody campaign.
Ministry of Intelligence agents under presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who were in office during that decade, used various methods to kill, including stabbings, shootings, potassium injections to induce heart failure, and instigating car accidents.
In more recent years, large numbers of Iranian citizens — not journalists and people who likely don’t classify themselves as activists — have been arrested for sharing information online. There is no indication that this trend will reverse.
Reporters Without Borders highlights the situation in Hong Kong, and describes Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, as a "puppet of the Chinese government.” Following Beijing’s approach to the media, Lam recently oversaw the closure of the influential independent newspaper Apple Daily and the arrest of its founder. The other woman featuring in the predators gallery is Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina, who has been in power since 2009. A digital security act introduced in 2018 has since led to the arrest and prosecution of more than 70 journalists and bloggers.
The group also highlights Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the only leader from the European Union to feature on the list, and who has stepped up pressure on independent media since returning to power in 2010. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Russian president Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev, Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka are also highlighted in the gallery.
Shirin Ebadi: Dissent Punished With Torture, Imprisonment and Even Execution
Commenting on Reporters Without Borders’ assessment of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi told IranWire’s sister site Journalism is Not a Crime that he tops the list of the world’s most authoritarian and repressive leaders.
The revered human rights activist was a judge prior to the inception of the Islamic Republic, when women were banned from becoming judges. “The history of the Islamic Republic of Iran suppressing journalists and restricting freedom of expression is bleak,” she said, “Numerous laws that restrict freedom of expression have been passed by parliament and ordered by the Supreme Leader in recent decades. Among them are laws on book publishing: the publication of any book requires permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The content of newspapers is constantly reviewed and censored by the Ministry of Culture and Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence.
"Many citizens are currently imprisoned and have been imprisoned over the last 42 years, making clear the lack of freedom of expression in the country," Ebadi said. "Journalists are not the only ones who are constantly repressed. In fact, we see that any citizen who says anything against the ideology of the system on a blog, Instagram, Twitter or Telegram channel is arrested, and court rulings sometimes reach the stage of issuing a death sentence for them. For example, Golrokh Iraee wrote a story in her personal notebook; it was confiscated and read by agents, and she was sentenced to six years in prison for blasphemy — the story was half-finished and had not been published anywhere. Or there’s the case of Sattar Beheshti, a blogger who only had 70 followers, according to member of parliament Ali Motahari, and who was arrested and tortured to death."
Ebadi says that, in addition to a total ban on criticizing Ali Khamenei and his appointees, criticism of religious and Shia ideology has also led to harsh sentences for citizens in recent years.
“Anyone who criticizes the baseless theories of the Supreme Leader of the Iranian regime will face punishments including apostasy and the death penalty. This amounts to an abandonment of reason and law and is ruling by force and oppression."
"In recent years, hundreds of citizens have been arrested just for posting a joke about religious beliefs. One journalist was sentenced to three years in prison for using the word 'death' instead of 'martyrdom' for a Shia imam. All it takes for a Baha’i to be arrested is to post or write something about his own religion. Why? Because the government does not recognize his religion and considers this to be an action against national security."
It is for these many reasons, Ebadi says, that international human rights organizations declare Iran to be an enemy of freedom of expression and media freedom. "If the religious system prevails in Iran, the situation will continue to worsen,” she observed.