By RICK GLADSTONE and ARTIN AFKHAMI
January 25, 2012
The judicial authorities in Iran have arrested at least half a dozen journalists and bloggers over the past few weeks, according to their acquaintances, opposition Web sites and rights groups. The moves appear to be part of a pre-emptive campaign of intimidation to thwart protests surrounding the parliamentary elections that are scheduled to be held in early March.
The arrests of the journalists and bloggers, including two prominent women whose blog posts are widely read in Iran, have not been reported by the official news media. Rights groups and people who know the detained journalists said the government apparently wanted word of the arrests to spread informally, to heighten the atmosphere of fear and paranoia.
It also was unclear what specific charges, if any, had been lodged against those who were arrested. None seem to have been politically active or to have published anything that might be considered seditious since the last major Iranian government crackdown on free expression in February 2011. At that time, the authorities arrested a large number of journalists as part of what turned out to be a successful effort to subvert any ambition by Iran’s largely silenced political opposition to celebrate the revolutions that were then sweeping Tunisia and Egypt.
The government “can’t come out publicly and name them or charge them with anything, because they can’t justify why they’re holding them,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, an advocacy group in New York that has researched the arrests, adding that the journalists and bloggers were “prominent enough that the news will get around quickly and intimidate others.”
Friends of the two arrested women, Parastou Dokouhaki and Marzieh Rasouli, have started a Web site to publicize their situation. Ms. Dokouhaki, a rights activist whose blog, Written by a Woman, attracted a wide following, has been held in Evin Prison in Tehran since Jan. 15, when agents raided her home and confiscated her laptop computer and other items. In a posting on Tuesday, the Web site said that Ms. Dokouhaki’s family had been told by prosecutors that she was in “temporary detention,” a catchall term that could leave her incarcerated indefinitely.
The site said that Ms. Rasouli, an award-winning literary and cultural journalist and social blogger who once worked for the Iranian Student News Agency as well as reformist newspapers, was arrested Jan. 17. Apparently, the site said, someone later used her seized laptop and e-mail account to send messages to friends that word of her arrest was a “mere rumor,” heightening the concern about her. She too was taken to Evin Prison, the site said, but unlike Ms. Dokouhaki, she had not been permitted to call her family.
A third journalist, Sahamoddin Bouraghani, who was the national press director for the Ministry of Culture during the tenure of a former president, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, was arrested Jan. 17 as well, rights activists said.
At least three more journalists were arrested the previous week, activists said, including Fatemeh Kheradmand, a freelance health and social reporter; Ehsan Houshmandzadeh, an ethnic researcher; and Said Madani, a former university professor who edited Social Welfare, a quarterly journal. The Committee to Project Journalists, a New York-based advocacy group that has called Iran one of the most repressive countries for press freedom, with at least 42 journalists imprisoned in 2011, said last week that it had documented the arrests of at least seven journalists there since Jan. 7.
“Tehran is sending a message to the opposition media that dissent will be treated with a heavy hand,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the group’s program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. “Not only are Iranian authorities detaining more journalists, but they also persist in mistreating those who have spent time in official custody.”
Human Rights Watch, in an annual appraisal issued last Sunday, said that Iran “imprisoned more journalists and bloggers than any other country” in 2011, and that Iran’s judiciary “works hand in hand with security and intelligence forces to harass, imprison and convict opposition and rights activists.”
Top law enforcement officials in Iran have issued cryptic warnings in recent weeks about hidden enemies they say are scheming to make trouble during the parliamentary election, which is scheduled for March 2. But they have not identified any by name or talked about the arrests of specific individuals.
The election will be the first time that Iran’s conservative Islamic hierarchy will face what amounts to a national plebiscite since the 2009 presidential election.
The official results announced then showed the conservative incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, winning by a suspiciously lopsided margin; his two major opponents, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, said the voting had been rigged. Both opponents have been under house arrest for nearly a year.
Even so, they have managed to get messages to followers telling them to boycott the elections. A low turnout in March would be an acute embarrassment for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who has described Iran as the Middle East’s only true democracy.
Activists said it was particularly troubling that none of the latest journalists to be arrested had written anything politically provocative. Ms. Dokouhaki’s last blog post, on Dec. 31, for example, was an emotional narrative about her inability to cope with the death of her father. According to Mr. Ghaemi, Ms. Rasouli “was never politically active and never wrote about political affairs.”
Some speculated that they were arrested because they knew how to navigate their way around the Internet and to transmit information to their circles of friends abroad.
Ms. Dokouhaki studied at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where she received a master’s degree in media studies in 2007 and became acquainted with researchers and translators for the BBC’s Persian service, which the Iranian government has vilified as an agent of subversion and imperialist arrogance. Ms. Rasouli also had a large number of contacts outside Iran.
Mehrad Vaezinejad, a contributor to the BBC and a friend of both women, said by telephone from London that the timing of the arrests so close to the election and the dearth of official information reflected the judicial authorities’ dual purposes. “One was to make reporting inside the country very difficult during the 2012 elections,” he said. “Two was to make an example out of Marzieh and Parastou and instill fear in the hearts of potential citizen-journalists or political activists.”