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Society & Culture

Iranian Journalists Forced into Exile — Just for Doing their Jobs

June 19, 2015
Natasha Bowler
6 min read
Sam Mahmoodi Sarabi
Sam Mahmoodi Sarabi
Naeimeh Doostdar
Naeimeh Doostdar
Mostafa Azizi
Mostafa Azizi
World Refugee Day poster
World Refugee Day poster
Journalism is not a Crime logo
Journalism is not a Crime logo

The United Nations Refugee Convention defines refugees as individuals who are forced to live outside the boundaries of their country "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion". This year, the global number of refuges is higher than ever before. It is currently estimated that there are over 50 million refugees and displaced people around the world, greatly due to the growing number and intensity of conflicts. This is the highest this number has been since World War Two.

More concerning still is that this figure does not encompass asylum seekers; people that have left their country of origin, applied for asylum in another country and are awaiting a response.

The 2015 campaign has, among other things, seen over 20 celebrities from around the world releasing a series of short videos in support of refugees, including German actress and model Diane Kruger and Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini.

Iran, like so many countries around the world, has added to the number of refugees — and often because the government persecutes groups and individuals in society. According to the Refugee Project, which maps refugee migrations from UN data, in 2012, there were over 75,000 Iranian refugees scattered around the world, including the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia.

Iranian refugees have been forced to leave their home country for a number of reasons, including religious persecution, such as for the Baha’is and other religious minorities, racial targeting, such as for the Arab Ahwazis, and for political reasons, particularly for proponents of free speech, including human rights activists and journalists.  

The Iranian authorities have long persecuted media workers, including bloggers and social media activists, for expressing political opinions that dispute official lines. This persecution comes in numerous forms, including harassment, arrests, torture and internal exile, all of which has forced reporters to flee Iran in recent years and decades.

Currently, there are at least 21 Iranian media workers, including five women, living in exile, according to the Journalism is Not A Crime Project, an online database that documents the arrests and persecution of Iranian journalists. Its founder, Maziar Bahari — who also founded IranWire — says the site hopes to give Iranian journalists “greater agency” and “hold the Iranian government to account for its illegal actions against the press and the people who work within it.”

The project is on going, which suggests the number of refugee journalists may be even higher.

Well-respected Iranian journalist Sam Mahmoodi Sarabi was forced to leave Iran in October 2012 when he realized he would never be able to work there safely. On one occasion, he was thrown in jail for writing a poem called “I Confess,” which he dedicated to political prisoners in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election.

 “I crossed the border accompanied by a smuggler and a student who’d recently been released from jail. We trekked about 150 kilometers to Van in Turkey and then made our way to Ankara,” Sarabi told IranWire. “I’d spent 177 days in solitary confinement and was brutally tortured before I was released on bail. I still carry the marks on my body. I ultimately went from one exile to another.”

Mostafa Azizi, a prominent television producer and writer who lived in Canada for several years, expressed similar feelings about living outside of Iran.

“I didn’t emigrate. Rather, I’m living like an exile,” Azizi told Iranian poet Sepideh Jodeyri in March 2012. “I’ve done a few small things here and there but I couldn’t call it my ‘new life.’ Mostly I’m here physically but my soul is wandering around Iran.”

This feeling of unrest is what ultimately pushed him to return to Iran in January 2015. Azizi wanted to be closer to his family and friends. However, the Iranian authorities quickly arrested him, and in June, he was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of “collusion against Iran” and “insulting the Supreme Leader.”

“My father returned to Iran because he loved his country,” his son Arash told IranWire. “He wanted to work there and be near to his family, especially since his father was old and ill. He expected there might have been consequences for his return but he didn’t think he’d committed an offense.”

Journalist Naeimeh Doostdar was also forced into exile. In late January 2011, she was boarding a plane for a job interview with Radio Farda, a radio network funded by the US Congress operating from Prague in the Czech Republic. But just minutes before the plane was due to leave, security forces boarded the aircraft, confiscated Doostdar’s passport and told her that she was prohibited from leaving Iran. Two weeks later, she was arrested.

“They arrested me on trumped-up charges and took me to the revolutionary court,” she says. “They searched my home and humiliated members of my family. Then they took me to Evin Prison blindfolded.”

The Iranian authorities frequently harass the family members of arrested journalists. In Naeimeh’s case, security agents stopped her sister in the street and told her that if she gave information about her case, Naeimeh’s situation would worsen. Her parents also received anonymous calls telling them to not give interviews.

When Naeimeh was released on bail in March 2011, while she was awaiting the court’s verdict, she fled Iran with her husband and newborn child.

According to the website of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), her family “went to Dubai and then to Malaysia. But Malaysia has an expatriation agreement with Iran, so they weren’t safe. But then after eight months in Kuala Lumpur, she was told that her application to ICORN had been accepted and she was to be one of their guest writers.”

Doostdar and her family now live in Sweden, where she works as a freelance journalist.

However, exile as a form of punishment for Iranian journalists is not only based outside of Iran; the authorities also punish reporters by exiling them inside Iran.

Most recently, in May, reporter Ahmad Zeidabadi was released from prison having served out his full six-year sentence and was immediately sent into exile in Gonabad in northwestern Iran. This caused outrage from much of the Iranian media community, with 101 journalists signing a petition to have the decision overturned. But Zeidabadi remains in exile, as do many other journalists in Iran.

World Refugee Day is an important reminder of the millions of refugees suffering around the world. It includes both those escaping conflict zones and those battling with authoritarian regimes like Iran to express themselves freely and to establish a free and robust press in their countries. Freedom of speech advocates, like so many Iranian journalists, must be recognized so that one day they will no longer live in exile — away from their homes, their families and their friends. 


Related articles:

101 Journalists Protest Exile of Ahmad Zeidabadi

Journalist Sent Straight From Prison To Exile


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