Sunday, March 29, 2015

Journalist Who Backed Rohani Flees Iran

Iranian journalist Amir Hossein Motaqi (left), with Rohani's younger brother and adviser, Hossein Fereydoun

Golnaz Esfandiari

An Iranian journalist who campaigned for President Hassan Rohani and who had traveled to Lausanne with Iranian negotiators to cover talks on Tehran's nuclear program is seeking political asylum in Switzerland. 

Amir Hossein Motaqi, editor of Iran’s ISKA news agency, told RFE/RL he decided to seek asylum after being hampered in his journalistic work by Iranian officials. 

"Officials from the Foreign Ministry demanded that we cover the news they wanted -- news that was not true -- or not to cover news that they didn’t want to be published," Motaqi told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Lausanne.

He said pressure also came from “one or two” members of news agencies affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Motaqi, 31, said such "clear interference" forced him to end his work with domestic media "to tell the truth and defend freedom of expression."

Press freedom advocates say journalists in Iran face tough official and informal censorship.

The French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has said that Iran censors independent coverage of the nuclear issue, including the talks with global powers on Tehran's nuclear program and the costs of building nuclear facilities. 

Motaqi declined to provide concrete examples about the limitations Iranian journalists covering the talks face. The negotiations are aimed at finding a lasting agreement that would curb Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange of sanctions relief.

Amir Hossein MotaqiAmir Hossein Motaqi
Amir Hossein Motaqi
Amir Hossein Motaqi

"It was more than some limitations, it was a clear interference," he said. 

When asked whether officials had contacted him since he decided to seek refuge in Switzerland, Motaqi said, "I’d rather not talk very openly about this, to be honest I’m afraid.” 

Iranian media sought to distance themselves from Motaqi.

ISKA news said in a statement that “an individual who didn’t have any role in the news agency” and who had traveled to Lausanne on personal expenses, had acted immorally and unprofessionally while there. 

“After that ISKA news management fired the individual before the [Iranian] New Year [on March 21],” the statement said.

It added that ISKA news denies any ties with Motaqi.

The Iranian news site Entekhab said Motaqi was a “simple sports reporter” who had traveled to Lausanne with the sole purpose of fleeing Iran.

“News sources in Lausanne say that this individual had come on the trip with a plan, and that he had not performed any news duties since the day he started."
Motaqi said he believes Rohani and his team work hard to bring changes.

But he said the opposition against the government is so strong that its chances of success are, in his words, “close to zero." 

Rohani has come under pressure by hard-line conservatives over his cultural and social policies that are deemed too liberal. Hard-liners who control key state institutions have also made it clear that despite the nuclear negotiations with the United States, they are against a détente with Washington.

Motaqi also said that the situation for Iranian journalists has not improved under Rohani who has promised greater press freedom and less state censorship.

“Some might say that [under Rohani] the number of newspapers that have been shut down and journalists who have lost their jobs has decreased. But in general conditions for journalists in our country deteriorate every day.”

He said newspapers and other publications face censorship and editors have to comply with state guidelines.

Motaqi said he is working on a book about his experience campaigning for Rohani, which he said he is hoping to publish in Switzerland.

Following the disputed 2009 presidential vote and the state crackdown that followed, many journalists fled Iran to avoid arrest and prosecution. 

Since Rohani's election in 2013, a few of them have returned to Iran. At least two have ended up in prison.

The Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in January that Rohani has not lived up to expectations that he would usher a new era for the Iranian press.

The New York-based CPJ said a new wave of arrests and prosecutions of journalists has been carried out by authorities.

Rohani Adviser Says Rights Violations Hurting Iran

Iranian presidential adviser for ethnic and religious minorities' affairs Ali Yunesi

Ali Yunesi, a senior adviser to Iran's President Hassan Rohani and a former intelligence minister, has admitted that "many cases" of human rights violations are taking place in Iran's courts and prisons, blaming them on extremists. 

The human rights situation in the Islamic republic is often the subject of criticism by rights group and UN rights experts. Yet Iranian officials very rarely admit that abuses take place in the country. 

In a February 26 interview with the semi-official ISNA news agency, Yunesi said that hard-liners are creating trouble for the Islamic republic and damaging the country's reputation through their actions. 

"There are extremists who are under the control of nobody; many of them have infiltrated centers of power; they act as they wish, but of course the Islamic republic is [held responsible]," Yunesi said.

As an example, he cited the case of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who died in 2013 from a brain hemorrhage resulting from beatings after he was detained in front of Tehran's Evin Prison and interrogated.

Yunesi who advises Rohani on ethnic and religious minorities' affairs, noted that the case has led to a worsening of Iran's ties with Canada.

"All documents are available about who did this," Yunesi said, adding that some of those responsible for Kazemi's death were punished.

"This [incident] was caused by someone's own will and the Islamic republic continues to pay the price," he said. 

In Yunesi's view, the best place for the extremists is the Iranian parliament.

"These individuals should speak in the parliament, but they shouldn't be in power centers where they violate people's rights," he said.

Yunesi also said that the government remains faithful to its pledge to improve civil rights.

He said the government has managed to change the atmosphere somewhat and act on behalf of minorities.

Yunesi indicated that Rohani's administration will send a draft law on civil rights to the parliament, but added that he believes it unlikely that the conservative-dominated assembly will "tolerate and adopt" the government's plan. 

Yunesi is likely to face criticism for his comments from hard-liners, who have also blasted him in the past over some of his stances and remarks in support of minority rights.

--Golnaz Esfandiari

Photogallery Photo Gallery: The Photos That Maddened The Mullahs

  • Alaei took this photo of a young Afghan working at a tailor's shop. “It was during summer, the weather was warm, and [the Afghan teenager] was not wearing a shirt while working," Alaei said. "Behind him there was a flag of Iran and a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini. I included this in a series of photos of workers and daily life. But I was told it would be removed. When I asked my editor why, he said that because of the [combination] of the picture of Khomeini, the Iranian flag, a shirtless worker, and the poverty shown, it couldn’t be published.”
  • “This picture of an image of [Islamic Republic founder] Ayatollah Khomeini stuck to a motorbike had artistic value for me, because of its atmosphere, the texture, the lines. It was attractive for me," Alaei said. "I tried to offer it for publication, but I was told that such pictures can never get published because there shouldn’t be any flaws in a photo of the Leader. Photos of the founder of the Islamic Republic should give the impression of glory and greatness. They objected to the decay next to the image of Khomeini."
  • Alaei's series of photos of street musicians were published by the Fars news agency. But in this photo, the two women on the right side were considered to be insufficiently veiled. Alaei's editors said the photo could be published only if the women were cropped out of the image.
  • A less controversial image from the series on street musicians
  • “Pictures of pets and domestic animals are banned to a certain extent, unless they deal with forest preservation, hunting, or wildlife. But showing affection to animals and bringing them home is prohibited -- especially dogs, which are considered dirty. [Pictures of pets] are censored and considered red flags," Alaei said. This picture was rejected from a series on daily life.
  • Alaei took this picture of a woman with bare arms and no head scarf at a private party in Tehran. "This wasn’t a picture I could show to my editor," Alaei said. At the Fars news agency, he said, editors are reluctant to print images of women not wearing the chador, the long robe Iranian conservatives favor for women. "They try, in a way, to deny that there are [women who don’t wear the chador] in society. Pictures where women’s hair is visible are banned,” he said.
  • This photo was from a series about two heroin addicts and their newborn baby. Alaei said it was not published because the woman is not wearing the hijab.
  • “I went to the bazaar and took photos of women shopping for clothing they would wear at home, at parties, at weddings, and so on. But I wasn’t able to publish the photos because I was told the clothing in the shops was too revealing. They said it would make people think that these women would wear such dresses on some other occasion.”
  • This photo of a beggar with her child was published by the Fars news agency, but it was quickly taken down, Alaei said. His editors said that the sanctity of the chador had been violated because of the obvious poverty in the photo.

Iranian documentary photographer Milad Alaei, a former employee of the semiofficial Fars news agency, recently fled Iran and is now seeking asylum in Austria. Alaei told RFE/RL that he decided to leave after his editor assaulted him. He filed a complaint but was met with threats and legal charges, including “disrupting public opinion” and “ties with media opposed to the Islamic establishment.”

In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, Alaei said that photographers in Iran are accustomed to censorship of their work and know which subjects are considered off-limits. He said the Fars news agency is considered more restrictive than many media outlets because it is affiliated with the hard-line Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Alaei also noted that even formerly acceptable subjects can fall under a media blackout. For example, Iran's judiciary has banned all media from publishing photos of, or even mentioning, reformist former President Mohammad Khatami.

Here are some of Alaei's photos that have been barred from publication in Iran.

Nuclear Deal Could Increase Pressure On Rohani

Iranian President Hassan Rohani kisses a religious shrine while visiting the holy city of Qom on February 25.

The possibility of a nuclear deal between Iran and global powers is the subject of much debate in the Islamic republic. 

The discussions appear to reflect some degree of optimism that a deal will be reached despite the looming March 31 deadline for a political framework and the June 30 cutoff date for a permanent agreement.

Nonetheless, even though negotiations are still ongoing and success is far from guaranteed, President Hassan Rohani could come under pressure if his administration succeeds in reaching an enduring agreement that would rein in Tehran's nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

In an interview with the popular site, analyst and university professor Sadegh Zibakalam predicted that, if a lasting nuclear deal is reached, Rohani will face a new wave of opposition from his hard-line opponents who would focus on issues such as culture and the economy.

Rohani is already facing criticism over his cultural and social policies that hard-liners find too liberal. 

Zibakalam believes that the criticism will increase after a deal is struck.

"To demonstrate that the deal with the West does not mean a retreat in other arenas, government critics will definitely put more restrictions on civil liberties and the press,” Zibakalam said.

He added that Rohani and his foreign policy team should share credit for the nuclear agreement with hard-liners to escape such a scenario.

"If this deal will be considered a victory for the government, it will definitely face [a backlash] from the government's opponents,” Zibakalam said.

He continued by saying that the deal should be portrayed as the results of years of efforts and resistance by all the forces in the country and previous governments to dampen "the fire" that the government is likely to face over it.

Also commenting on the consequences of a nuclear deal, Ayatollah Mohsen Gharavian who teaches at the Qom seminaries, had a similar analysis.

He said Rohani is likely to come under increasing criticism over his economic and cultural policies.

Gharavian said Rohani should strengthen his communication channels with senior clerics in Qom -- an important center of power in the Islamic republic. Several of these clergymen have criticized the government's cultural policies. 

He also suggested that there should be more consultations and regular meetings with the senior clerics based in Qom.  

Rohani travelled to Qom on February 25 where he said in a public speech: “I want to make clear that the government needs Qom."

The reformist Shargh daily reported that, because of the timing of the speech, which comes as nuclear negotiations have entered the final stage, it "can be seen as an effort to gain the support of religious leaders for a possible agreement."

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranians Take To Social Media To Challenge Media Ban On Ex-President Khatami

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami

Some Iranians are protesting against a state media ban on former President Mohammad Khatami by posting his pictures on social media under the hashtag "We will be Khatami's media" (in Persian: #رسانه_خاتمی_میشویم)

The ban was formally announced earlier this week by judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei who said that, according to a judicial order, media don't have the right to mention Khatami and to publish his statements and photographs. 

Ejei did not say whether the order was a new decision or whether it was a reinstatement of a ruling that was reportedly sent to media in 2010 banning them from mentioning opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi, as well as Khatami.

Khatami's call for the release of Musavi, Rahnavard, and Karrubi who have been under house arrest since February 2011, has angered hard-liners.    

The reformist Khatami who was president from 1997 to 2005, remains popular and the decision to ban media from mentioning him and publishing his photos, has angered many of his supporters.

Within hours of Ejei's comments being made public, a Facebook page titled "We Will Be Khatami's Media" was launched where administrators began been posting photos of users along with Khatami or solo images of the former president. The Facebook page has so far garnered more than 10,000 likes. 

"Your pictures have been [censored] in the press, but one of your photos is still hanging on my wall," reads one comment posted on the Facebook page under a photo of Khatami.

Others have turned to Twitter to protest against the ban on Khatami.

Social networking sites are among the very few platforms where Iranians can express themselves and criticize state policies with relative freedom. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian Media Told, Again, Not to Mention Ex-President Khatami

Iran's recently elected President Hassan Rohani (left) meets with former President Mohammad Khatami at his home in Tehran in June 2013.

The spokesman for Iran's judiciary has confirmed that Iranian media remain banned from mentioning former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and publishing his comments, statements, and pictures.

Speaking to journalists on February 16, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei said media outlets that violate the ban would be dealt with.

He made the comments in response to a question regarding "a warning to media by Tehran's prosecutor office" not to publish Khatami's name and photographs or cover news related to him.

Iranian opposition website reported last month that a judiciary official had summoned newspaper editors and told them not to publish news and information or even photographs of Khatami, who has angered hard-liners over his support for Iran's opposition movement.

Mohseni-Ejei, who did not mention Khatami by name, said there was a regulation that prohibits media from publishing photos and news about the former president and it remained in place. It wasn't clear from his comments when the order was issued. 

Mohseni-Ejei said that the judiciary could make decisions regarding individuals who are considered "the leaders of the sedition," a term officials use to refer to opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi, as well as Khatami.

The former insiders fell out of grace for accusing the authorities of mass fraud in the 2009 reelection of former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and condemning the brutal state crackdown against the tens of thousands of citizens who took to the streets in protest.

The prohibition on publishing the names and photographs of Musavi, Rahnavard, Karrubi, and Khatami or cover their statements, news, and information about them was reportedly put in place in the months after the 2009 mass street protests that shook Iran.

Opposition websites reported in 2010 that officials had justified the "secret ruling" by saying that keeping society and public opinion calm was the main responsibility of the media and that news about the opposition figures would have "negative" influence on society.

Since the 2014 election of self-proclaimed moderate President Hassan Rohani, who has promised more press freedom, there have been rare mentions of the opposition figures in the Iranian press. The warning appears to be a reaction to this very limited coverage. reported that newspapers have recently been warned that when it comes to photos and news about Khatami, the ban includes internal pages and corner content.

There has been no official reaction to the ban from Khatami, who was president from 1997 to 2005. He remains popular despite his failure to bring promised social and political reforms. All his efforts were thwarted by powerful conservatives who control key state institutions.

In recent years, Khatami has made several calls for the release of Musavi, Rahnavard, and Karrubi, who were put under house arrest four years ago for challenging the establishment and refusing to be silenced.

Last year, several lawmakers called for a judicial order on Khatami to ban him from some activities, including giving speeches and traveling outside the country. 

Khatami was reportedly banned from traveling outside Iran during Ahmadinejad's presidency. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Female Singing At Center Of New Attacks Against Iran's Rohani

"There is always an issue with albums where women sing," singer Noushin Tafi says.

A recently released album of traditional Iranian music is turning into a new headache for the administration of President Hassan Rohani, who's accused by his hard-line opponents of being too liberal in his cultural and social policies.

The performance of a female singer in the album titled I Love You, Oh Ancient Land, which was released on January 27, is at the source of the controversy. 

Hard-liners claim that the album includes solo female singing, which has been banned in Iran since the 1979 revolution and the establishment of the Islamic republic. Conservatives claim solo female singing spreads moral corruption.

Several clerics have reportedly criticized the album, including two senior ayatollahs from their base in the holy city of Qom. reported earlier this week that Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani and Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi had spoken against the album in their religious classes.

"Singing [by women] should not become normal through any means, we will stop it," Nouri Hamedani was quoted as having said on February 4. Makarem Shirazi reportedly said: "The Culture Ministry tramples on religious values and there are complaints one after another against the ministry."

The controversy over the album is seen by analysts as part of a campaign hard-liners have waged against Rohani to prevent him from fulfilling his promises to relax cultural restrictions.

Officials from the Culture Ministry, which issued the permit for the album to be released, have denied claims that the album includes solo singing by a woman.

Culture Ministry spokesman Hossein Noushabadi said on January 30 that the version of the album that received a permit includes mixed singing. He said the album that was now being sold in the market will be reviewed by relevant authorities to make sure it does not include solo female singing.

Noushin Tafi, the main female singer in I Love You, Oh Ancient Land, told the Sharq daily that she performed on the album along with a male singer. "The talks about my solo singing are rumors," she said, while adding that she cooperated with singer Mohsen Karamati, whom she described as her maestro.

"There is always an issue with albums where women sing," Tafi said. "I'm not sure why there is [a problem] with my album. We went through all the legal processes, and the work is a duet."

Several lawmakers have said that the issue has reached the conservative-dominated parliament and that a decision will be made in the coming days.

The head of the parliament's Culture Committee, Ahmad Salek, said cases of solo singing by women and mixed singing were "very worrying." "The Culture Ministry should increase its supervision in this regard, it should pay greater attention to concerts and music albums that are released," he said.

Salek added that his committee will use all its tools to act against solo female singing, if proven.

The parliament last year questioned Culture Minister Ali Jannati over several issues, including solo female singing. Jannati was quoted in January 2014 as saying that he believed that the solo singing of women is permissible in some cases, including lullabies.

A Tehran-based journalist with a reformist daily told RFE/RL that hard-liners were increasingly creating tensions on the cultural scene to hurt Rohani. The journalist, who did not want to be named, said after the nuclear negotiations, the cultural sphere has become Rohani's "Achilles heel".

Rohani "has made many promises regarding culture, and he's managed to realize only a few of them. When concerts are canceled, musicians face problems, books don't get published, and so on, Rohani is being blamed and accused of being incompetent," the journalist said.

In recent months several concerts have been called off or canceled in a number of cities, including Shiraz and Bushehr, following pressure by hard-liners.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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