Reporters Without Borders share concern over imprisoned Iranian journalists

The organization is "particularly concerned" about their health, noting that the strike had been organized by the journalists to protest inhumane and degrading prison treatment.

July 14, 2019 13:27
Iranian women prisoners sit at their cell in Tehran's Evin prison June 13, 2006.

Iranian women prisoners sit at their cell in Tehran's Evin prison June 13, 2006. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

Reporters Without Border, a Paris-based non-governmental organization that advocates on issues relating to freedom of information and freedom of the press, has expressed deep concern over three imprisoned Iranian journalists taking part in a hunger strike that has lasted for at least a week.

The organization (also called Reporters Sans Frontières – RSF) is "particularly concerned" about their health, noting that the journalists organized the strike to protest "the inhumane and degrading treatment inflicted on them by prison and judicial officials."

"Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the conditions in which many arbitrarily detained journalists and citizen-journalists are being held in Iranian prisons," a statement by the NGO read. "Many are being denied medical care despite being ill or despite being badly affected physically and psychologically by their imprisonment."

Solheil Arabi, the recipient of the 2017 RSF Press Freedom Prize, has been on a hunger strike for more than 20 days, while some of the editorial staff of the student news channel Gam, Amir Hossein Mohammadifar and Sanaz Allahyari, started their hunger strikes early last week.

"Iran has been one of the world’s most repressive countries for journalists for the past 40 years," RSF explained on their website. "State control of news and information is unrelenting, and at least 860 journalists and citizen-journalists have been imprisoned or executed since 1979.

"The Islamic regime exercises extensive control over the media landscape, and its harassment of independent journalists, citizen-journalists and independent media has not let up. They are constantly subjected to intimidation, arbitrary arrest and long jail sentences imposed by revolutionary courts at the end of unfair trials. The media that are still resisting increasingly lack the resources to report freely and independently."

Arabi was arrested at his Tehran home in November 2013 by the Tharallah headquarters, an internal security group that shares affiliation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. On September 4, 2014, the Criminal Court of Tehran sentenced him to death "for sacrilege and 'insulting the Prophet of Islam' in eight Facebook accounts allegedly belonging to Arabi," according to Radio Farda - including an additional three years for insulting the "Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "and [promoting] propaganda against the state."

A couple of years later, the Iranian court lessened his prison term to seven and a half years, with the addition of having to hand-copy "thirteen Shi'a textbooks and studying Shi'ism," Radio Farda reported.

Mohammadifar and his wife Allahyari were arrested in January for reporting on the Iranian labor strikes the country was facing after the Iranian economy was hit hard by US sanctions, which were reimposed on November 5 after Washington withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May. They have been denied legal counsel since then, sparking their hunger strike.

"The prison authorities have deprived her of receiving medical treatment and visiting a hospital. Ms. Allahyari has been suffering from recurrent stomach pains, weight loss and severe shaking in her hands and legs for more than two months," Radio Farda reported.

With not much power to enact change while imprisoned in Iran, many prisoners take to hunger strikes to pressure international bodies to come to their aid in their hopes for freedom – like in the case of British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained in Iran since April 2016. In late June, she began a new hunger strike demanding her unconditional release.

This was one of many hunger strikes the dual-national prisoner has undertaken since her initial arrest. This strike, however, came amid growing tensions between Iran and the international arena, as Tehran has been widely condemned for the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman this week.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe proclaimed to Iranian authorities that she would begin her hunger strike, while still drinking water, to fight her "unfair imprisonment." Her husband also plans to stand in solidarity with her, as he has begun his own hunger strike to "keep her story public," urging the next UK prime minister to make it a top priority to "protect British citizens from unfair imprisonment – from torture."

Hunt granted Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic protection in March, but Tehran refused to recognize the move.

"Nazanin is a prisoner of conscience, unfairly jailed after a sham trial and subjected to all manner of torments – including months in solitary confinement and endless game-playing over whether she would receive vital medical care," said Amnesty International UK's director Kate Allen, according to the BBC.

She became suicidal months after her arrest, following her first hunger strike, her husband has told the British Guardian.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a London-based charity that is independent of Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

She has been detained in Iran since early April 2016 and has been accused by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps of trying to overthrow the Iranian government.

Iranian authorities have held Zaghari-Ratcliffe at the Islamic republic's infamous Evin prison, apparently for spying on Iran for the British authorities. She was arrested that April at an airport in Tehran while preparing to return from a family visit back to the UK along with her young daughter, according to her family. 

Speaking in response to Zaghari-Ratcliffe's jail sentence, Francesca Unsworth, director of the BBC World Service Group, said in January 2017: "Mrs. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has never worked for BBC Persian. She worked briefly for BBC Media Action, our international development charity, in a junior administrative capacity."

Unsworth then called on Iranian authorities to urgently re-examine the case.

Iranian authorities have accused the BBC Persian service of trying to overthrow the Islamic republic, especially after its coverage of widespread protests in Iran over disputed election results in 2009. BBC has denied the allegations.

As a result of a consistent media crackdown and almost total control over all outgoing media, and considering that the majority of the broadcast stations are state-run, "it is the citizen-journalists on social networks who are now at the center of the battles for freely reported news and information and for political change in Iran," according to RSF. "The regime has extended its fight against media freedom beyond the country’s borders and also targets the international media." 

Reuters contributed to this report.

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