Iran has renewed its crackdown on the press less than five months before the country’s June 14 presidential vote.
Since January 26 more than a dozen journalists from six media outlets have been detained.
The move is being seen as an attempt to silence independent coverage of the presidential election and a signal that the regime is willing to take preemptive action against people it believes could create trouble.
Iranian authorities are determined to have a “peaceful” election and prevent the kind of mass unrest that erupted in Tehran and several other cities in 2009 following the disputed reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Observers say the press crackdown is part of the campaign to make sure everything goes according to plan.
Prominent Tehran-based opposition activist Mohammad Nourizad told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that by arresting journalists the authorities are issuing a warning to the country’s few reformist publications to be cautious in their election coverage.
“We’re moving toward the election, [and so the authorities] need to take measures against the reformist press,” Nourizad said.
Journalists and media outlets are frequent targets of the establishment, which has a record of cracking down on the press during times of national sensitivity.
Nourizad said some reform-minded publications have been reporting that Iran is struggling under Western sanctions and publishing other “negative” stories that are not to the liking of the clerical establishment.
Most of the journalists were detained during January 27 raids at the offices of reformist newspapers “Arman,” “Bahar,” “Etemaad,” “Shargh,” and the weekly “Aseman.” Security forces are said to have confiscated their IDs and cell phones, searched the offices, filmed the staff, and taken away documents and computers. They reportedly also raided the homes of some of the detained journalists.
The Fars news agency, said to be affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, reported on January 27 that around 11 journalists had been rounded up on the orders of the judiciary. Fars said the detained journalists were close to “the sedition,” which is the term used by Iranian officials to refer to the opposition Green Movement that emerged in 2009.
Milad Fadayi, a political editor with the semiofficial ILNA news agency, is among the detainees. He and another colleague from the “Bahar” daily were reportedly detained on January 26 and taken to Tehran’s Evin prison.
Reports say one more journalist, Hossein Yaghchi, was detained on January 28.
Another, Motahareh Shafiee, who was detained on January 27, was reportedly released because of health issues.
The French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says arrest warrants have been issued for more journalists.
RSF’s Reza Moini says several journalists have been interrogated by security officials this month about the June vote.
“Journalists from all over Iran, especially from Tehran, have been summoned by the security office of the Revolutionary Guards -- as well as the Intelligence Ministry -- and interrogated," Moini said.
"They’ve been mainly asked about the June vote, especially about the recent speech of Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in which he had called for an end to talk about free elections. Some of the journalists were warned and some were even told not to vote.”
The semiofficial news Mehr agency said the journalists were arrested for cooperating with Persian-language “counterrevolutionary” media organizations.
Iranian Culture Minister Mohammad Hosseini said on January 28 that the charges against the detained journalists are not related to their “press” activities. “It seems that they have been arrested over security accusations,” he said.
He said his ministry is investigating and plans to release more information to the public.
The arrests come about a week after Iranian Prosecutor-General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei said he had received information from “reliable sources” that a number of journalists were collaborating with “Westerners and counterrevolutionaries.”
The renewed crackdown on journalists inside Iran comes amid pressure on Iranian journalists working for international news outlets, whose families have been interrogated and threatened. Many have been harassed in an online campaign aimed at discrediting them.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Iran as the world’s second-worst jailer of journalists in its latest prison census, released in December. Forty-five journalists were behind bars in Iran in 2012, according to CPJ.
Radio Farda broadcasters Mohammad Zarghami and Roozbeh Bolhari contributed to this report.