By BENJAMIN JOFFE-WALT / THE MEDIA LINE
Iran has become the country with the largest number of imprisoned journalists following the sentencing of two journalists to prison terms of at least six years each, bringing the total number of journalists currently detained in the Islamic republic to 42.
Bahman Ahmadi Amoui, a well known reformist journalist arrested in June for criticizing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic policies, was sentenced Monday to over seven years imprisonment and 34 lashes by a Teheran revolutionary court. The same day, 36 parliamentarians supportive of Ahmadinejad drafted a bill that would require the execution of government critics detained as "mohareb" (enemies of God) within five days of their arrest. The bill also calls for the period of time allotted for appeals in cases of public order disturbances or "moharebeh" (war against God) to be brought down from 25 days to five days.
"The latest crackdown is not only against journalists but against bloggers or anyone that can spread information," Vincent Brossel, a researcher at Reporters Without Borders told The Media Line. "The government expected that the demonstrations would stop but they didn't so that's why they took action."
"It only partially works for them," Brossel said. "Very few journalists can go to Iran, there are no reformist newspapers left and there are almost no reformists quoted in the media, so it has become much more difficult for the Iranian people to receive a diversity of information. But despite all that people are still coming out to protest."
Dozens of journalists were arrested during the unrest that followed Iran's disputed presidential elections in June of last year. Following a recent wave of opposition protests late last month, Iran's intelligence ministry and Revolutionary Guards have arrested around a dozen more journalists and reformist bloggers.
"It is unacceptable that the Iranian authorities are responding to criticism in the media by arresting journalists and handing down prison sentences," Anthony Mills, Press Freedom Manager at the International Press Institute, said in a statement. "The crackdown on the media must end immediately and the journalists imprisoned simply for doing their job must be freed."
Originally arrested during the June unrest, it was not clear what Amoui had been charged with. An editor at Sarmayeh, an influential economic newspaper closed by the government in November, Amoui had also been a frequent contributor to various reformist media outlets.
At least eight additional journalists and bloggers were arrested, sentenced or barred from journalism last week alone.
Journalist Ahmad Zeydabadi had his six year sentence upheld on Saturday for writing articles critical of the government. The 2009 winner of the World Association of Newspapers' Golden Pen of Freedom Award, Zeydabadi was also sentenced to five years banishment in Gonabad, a remote northeastern town over 600 miles from Teheran, to be served following his prison term. He was also banned for life from political activity and is understood to be currently held in solitary confinement in the infamous Evin prison, under pressure from Iranian authorities to issue a public confession.
"We condemn the harsh sentence given to Ahmad Zeid-Abadi and the vague charges on which he was convicted," Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement. "We call on the Iranian authorities to put an end to threats and attacks against journalists and free those who remain behind bars."
Also on Saturday, reformist journalist Rouzbeh Karimi, a staff writer for the Kargozaran Daily, was arrested at his home in Teheran.
On Friday Ali Hekmat, editor-in-chief of now-banned reformist daily Khordad, Mohammad Reza Zohdi, editor-in-chief of the now-banned reformist daily Aria and Mahsa Hekmat, a reporter with reformist daily Etemad e Melli, were all arrested. It is not known where they are being held.
On Thursday Mehrdad Rahimi, a journalist and blogger who has been highly critical of Iran's judicial system, was arrested and taken to Evin prison.
Ahmad Reza Ahmadpour, a political blogger, was also arrested in Qom earlier last week.
Shahin Mahinfar, a news anchor at the government run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), was fired last week just days after a car belonging to Iranian security forces struck and killed his son during opposition protests in Teheran. Reformists claim Mahinfar is under pressure to declare the death an accident.
Earlier this week Iran's Intelligence ministry released a list of 60 foreign organizations and news outlets that would be banned from the country for alleged involvement in rioting or incitement. The list included Voice of America, the BBC and Human Rights Watch. Any Iranian in contact with a news outlet on the list could be arrested.
Dr Mehrdad Khonsari, a senior researcher at the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies, said the Iranian government was taking a major risk by arresting journalists.
"Arresting journalists is a high cost option for the regime," he told The Media Line. "The record on the part of similar regimes resorting to similar tactics is by and large not a productive one."
"When you arrest journalists and intellectuals, the effect of that on the general population and society is tremendous," he said. "It infuriates the public because you're not dealing with dissident paramilitary type of people, you are dealing with people at the heart of society that represent the sentiments of that society."
"So they are clearly not looking for the support of the people," Dr Khonsari stressed. "It's a war that's being waged within the ruling elite. They are trying to consolidate the base of their power through intimidation and an effort to obtain the full submission of their opponents."
"Their chance of success in the long run is very low," he added. "But the regime has two options: one is to pursue reconciliation and the other is to go for confrontation. They have made their choice."
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