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Society & Culture

Journalists in Iran: Forced Confessions, Arbitrary Arrests, Self-Censorship

June 10, 2015
Natasha Bowler
5 min read
Still from Maziar Bahari's Forced Confessions
Still from Maziar Bahari's Forced Confessions
Jason Rezaian
Jason Rezaian
Self-Censorship by Mana Neyestani
Self-Censorship by Mana Neyestani
The Evolution of Censorship by Mana Neyestani
The Evolution of Censorship by Mana Neyestani
Ami Hadi Anvari
Ami Hadi Anvari

Journalism is not a Crime, an online database of every journalist the Iranian government has thrown behind bars for publishing material it deems to be “inappropriate,” goes live this week.

The site will feature hundreds of journalists that have been jailed since the Green Movement of 2009 and before, legal and psychological advice for reporters, relevant projects, as well as up-to-date news on arrests, censorship and other violations of the press.

One of Journalism is not a Crime’s projects is a report by lawyer Helen Anthony that examines how the Iranian’s government restrictions on press and journalistic freedom in Iran is a violation of international human rights law, as well as Iranian law. Citing widespread examples of legal breaches and the human cost of this, Helen’s work chillingly demonstrates the lengths the Iranian government is willing to go to control the media. She spoke to IranWire about the report.


How does Iran breach the rights of journalists?

Iran breaches the rights of journalists in many ways. Firstly, the right to freedom of expression when it bans websites, publications and articles it doesn’t agree with. It also breaches the right to offend and insult by interfering in reporters’ private lives through surveillance and by going through their possessions when it doesn’t have permission.

It also breaches the right to not be arbitrarily arrested. Often Iran holds people without charge for prolonged periods and that’s contrary to their right to a fair trial — because with their right comes the right to know what you’re being held for.

Iran also breaches the right to not be tortured and journalists are frequently tortured when they’re held in custody in Iran. Numerous rights are violated and all too often.


Are family members also at risk?

There is evidence to suggest family members are arrested for spurious reasons in order to prevent journalists from reporting in a way that factions in the Iranian government or security forces don’t like. Family members are arrested and charged with baseless offences to stop controversial journalists.


To what extent do you think journalists in Iran self-censor? Why is that?

Self-censorship comes about when people are afraid to write something for fear of the consequences. It’s absolutely clear that that’s what the Iranian government is striving to achieve when they arrest people who make “inconvenient” comments. There are certain topics and people that aren’t mentioned in the press because if the Iranian government sees it, the responsible journalists are at risk of being arrested – this is when they self-censor.


How is freedom of the press constrained by the principles of Islam in Iran? Is this legal?

The constitution and the press law are written in a way that means press freedom is constrained by Islamic principles. However, Islamic principles are not clearly written down anywhere so it’s very difficult for journalists to know what they’re constrained by, especially given that these principles seem to be determined on an ad hoc basis. This principle is in itself a breach of international law because it requires the press to have freedom of expression, which includes talking about ideas and issues that may go against Islamic principles.


Iran’s press law criminalizes libel. How does this become a tool of political censorship?

Libel is the idea that a journalist has written something about somebody else that is untrue and causes harm to that person’s reputation. Given libel is criminal in Iran, it means that if somebody writes something about a government official, they could be subjected to criminal penalties. This results in libel law often being misused to impose penalties on journalists that are saying something that is true. What’s more, often reporters can’t prove this in court either because the judge is unwilling to accept this as evidence. Criminal libel law is used to protect the powerful and to imprison people who are trying to truth-tell.


Iran is not party to international statutes that make it possible for legal action to be taken against it.  There are, however, a number of mechanisms that can be used to try to prevent future human rights abuses. What are these?

There are a number of things. Firstly, you can complain to the Human Rights Council about breaches of the international covenant on political rights. There are mechanisms via the UN that if someone is arrested arbitrarily, there is a UN working group that can approach the Iranian government to question why they are being held and ask for their release. This can be useful but is entirely dependent on Iranian cooperation.

Then outside of the UN, you can impose sanctions through the European Union, the United States of America, place sanctions on individuals who’ve committed human rights abuses. In fact, the EU has done this for members of the government and the police.

You can also punish companies that are involved in the torturing of individuals. So, for example, if an enterprise supplies equipment or resources that aid human rights abuses being committed or if vehicles are used to transport journalists to prison, criminal convictions are a possibility in countries such as France.

Other than legal mechanisms, you can also lobby the UN, which can result in embargoes or sanctions against Iran. And, although the UN can’t impose sanctions unless there’s risk of breaching peace, it can call on members to respect embargoes. This worked with regards to South Africa and apartheid for a number of years. It can also work for things like trying to prevent Iran’s state television company and English-language offshoot Press TV from broadcasting forced confessions or the like. But all these mechanisms depend on the will to change things, both inside and outside of Iran. There has to be political will from the Iranian government.


Having put together the report, in your opinion, why is the Iranian government censoring the press and jailing journalists? What are they trying to prevent or achieve?

It’s all aimed at control. The government doesn’t want anything controversial in the public domain or taboo subjects discussed so this is their way of controlling ideas and culture. It’s aimed at stopping political dissent but also anything that is vaguely Western, anything that is contrary to foreign policy. The government wants to control and it is succeeding. 


To learn more about issues affecting journalists in Iran please visit:



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