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Group: Iran jails, intimidates journalists as election looms

Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters, file

A guard stands watch at Tehran's Evin Prison in 2006. A new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists says that Iran has cracked down harshly on reporters ahead of the June presidential election. The group says most of those jailed are held at Evin, where at least three journalists have died in the past four years.

Iran has launched a campaign to intimidate and imprison journalists ahead of the June 14 presidential election, according to a new report from a New York-based advocacy group.

The wave of arrests began on Jan. 27, when authorities detained at least 14 journalists affiliated with reformist publications, according to the report, released Wednesday by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Another 23 journalists had been arrested by early March, it said.

An April 15 audit by the group found that at least 40 journalists were behind bars as part of what it called “the government’s continuing determination to silence independent coverage of public affairs.”

Michael Stuparyk / Toronto Star via Getty Images, f

Hossein Derakhshan, shown in Canada in 2006, was a blogger who tried to help fellow Iranians create their own blogs. He has been held at Tehran's Evin Prison since November 2008 and has been tortured and kept for long periods in solitary confinement.

Charges against them included insulting the president, spreading anti-Iranian propaganda, and in one case, “waging war against God.”

Intimidation of journalists -- including beatings, long periods in solitary confinement and denial of family visits and health care -- has had a chilling effect on the free flow of information, the report says, noting that government has blocked “millions” of websites.

Iran has also recently banned some reformist publications and arrested their leaders.

A particularly harsh crackdown on dissenting voices began in March, after Iranian Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi announced that 600 Iranian journalists were part of an anti-government network and that many were being arrested to "prevent the emergence of sedition prior to the elections," the report says.

Farideh Farhi, a University of Hawaii scholar who has written extensively about Iran, said the arrests are part of an effort to disrupt links between reporters inside Iran and their Farsi-speaking counterparts abroad, the report says.

The effort may stem from the 2009 election, when observers representing the candidates passed on reports of fraud to local reporters, who then relayed the information to colleagues outside the country, the report says, adding that those links are likely to be broken during the coming election.

Raheb Homavandi / Reuters, file

Iran's Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, right, announced in March that 600 Iranian journalists were part of an anti-government network and that many were being arrested to "prevent the emergence of sedition prior to the elections."

 “The intent,” Farhi says in the report, “is to make sure that reporters inside Iran will hesitate to answer their phones or Skype when Persian-speaking reporters based outside of Iran call to figure out what's going on.”

There is evidence that the tactics have worked. Reporters inside Iran are careful what they say, even in telephone calls, and may be reluctant to write stories critical of the government.

The situation has gotten markedly worse under the rule of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the report said.

In 2004, the last full year of reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s term, the group said its annual prison census documented just one jailed journalist. In December 2009, after a disputed election returned Ahmadinejad to office, 23 imprisoned journalists were documented. Surveys since then have consistently shown 35 to 50 journalists behind bars at any given time, the report says.

Under Ahmadinejad’s rule, at least three journalists have died in prison and many more have been tortured, while at least 68 have fled into exile, the group said.

An attempt to get comments from Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, which must be contacted by email, was unsuccessful.

As of Wednesday night in Tehran's time zone, Iran’s state news agency had not mentioned the report.

The semi-official Fars News Agency, however, has previously reported on research by the Committee to Protect Journalists. A December article focused on the finding that Turkey had jailed more journalists, 49, than any other country that year. The article did not mention that the second-highest number of journalists, 45, were jailed in Iran.