Iranian authorities are holding at least 40 journalists in prison as the June presidential election approaches, the second-highest total in the world and a figure that reflects the government’s continuing determination to silence independent coverage of public affairs, a new analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists has found.
CPJ’s census of journalists imprisoned on April 15 also highlights the severe deterioration of freedom of expression in Iran over time. In December 2004, during the last full year of President Mohammad Khatami’s tenure, CPJ documented just one journalist in prison during its annual worldwide prison census. By December 2009, after a contested presidential election returned Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to office, the number had grown to 23 in CPJ’s annual census. CPJ surveys since that time have consistently shown 35 to 50 journalists in prison in Iran at any given time.
Only Turkey, with 48 in jail, was detaining more journalists on April 15, CPJ research shows.
As devastating as the imprisonments are to the individual journalists and their families, the Iranian government’s tactics have had an intimidating effect on the press, choking off the flow of information. This census and CPJ’s past surveys are simply snapshots in time—they do not include the large numbers of journalists convicted of crimes or facing charges who are temporarily free on bail or furlough. Iran has pursued a revolving-door policy in imprisoning journalists, freeing some detainees on short-term furloughs even as they make new arrests. The pattern of rotating critical journalists in and out of prison has sown fear and self-censorship across the entire press corps, according to CPJ research. At least 68 Iranian journalists fled into exile between 2007 and 2012 due to harassment and the threat of imprisonment, according to CPJ research. Only Somali journalists have gone into exile in higher numbers during that period.
The Iranian government has used several other tactics to intimidate journalists. Authorities have blocked millions of websites, banned reformist publications, and conducted widespread electronic surveillance in an effort to make a wide range of topics off-limits to public debate. “Many of the topics we could cover five years ago, like cultural issues, we couldn’t do anymore,” Omid Memarian, an exiled Iranian journalist, told CPJ. “Journalists were even prevented from covering the earthquake relief efforts that happened in Iran last year.”
In 2013, as the Iranian government began a new wave of detentions aimed at silencing journalists ahead of the elections, Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi announced that 600 Iranian journalists were part of an anti-state network. He said the arrests were an attempt to “prevent the emergence of sedition prior to the elections.”