Shahram Rafizadeh, cultural editor of the daily "Etemad," was arrested on 7 September. A day later, Hanif Mazrui, who wrote for several reformist newspapers and is the son of a former member of parliament, was also arrested.
In all, seven Internet journalists were thrown behind bars. All had written articles critical of the establishment.
Recently, some of them have been freed on bail. Four published letters expressing repentance and appeared at the trial of former parliamentarian Rajab Ali Mazrui, the president of the Association of Iranian Journalists. They said they had been treated well in prison.
Mazrui is being prosecuted for writing an open letter to President Mohammad Khatami about the alleged mistreatment of his son, who was recently released. In the letter, Mazrui said his son was kept for 59 days in solitary confinement and was beaten up during interrogations.
Massoud Behnud is a prominent exiled journalist who has also seen jail time in Iran. He says that the journalists' "confessions" suggest torture is being used in the prisons of the Islamic Republic.
"The more Iran's judiciary advances in this issue, the more they turn the doubts of the Iranian people and the world into certainty that in Iran's prisons there is pressure and torture. Even if we ignore all the facts, evidence, and comments made by ex-prisoners and if we believe the comments made by Iran's judicial officials that there is no torture in the prisons, just the fact that they kept four young journalists for more than two months in solitary confinement and then they had them express opinions that were just like their interrogators' opinions -- this alone shows that there is torture in Iran's prisons," Behnud said.
Sarah Leah Whitson is Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. In a statement, Whitson said Iranian authorities are foolish if they think anyone would believe the journalists' letters of repentance are authentic. She says Tehran is quickly losing its already meager credibility on human rights.
Journalist Fereshteh Ghazi reportedly had to be hospitalized soon after her release due to poor physical and mental conditions.
Reza Moini handles Iran for media rights group Reporters Without Borders in Paris. "We have reliable information that there has been torture, the prisoners had been under lots of mental and psychological pressure and they had been beaten up and because of that we have asked two UN working commissions to go to Iran and prepare reports in this regard," Moini said.
Moini, however, notes that intimidation has continued even after journalists' release. "Since the day after they were released, they have been harassed [by the authorities] and have been under pressure. They've received phone calls and they have been summoned. They are under pressure in three matters. First, they should not accept the services of a lawyer. Secondly, they should expand their confessions and accuse other people and thirdly, since Mr. Mazrui has published that open letter, they should take actions to criticize and condemn it," Moini said.
Iran's judiciary has charged the journalists with "propaganda against the regime, acting against national security, and disturbing public opinion." Similar charges have been brought in the past against reporters and activists arrested for their critical view of the establishment.
Including nonjournalists such as technicians, some 20 people have reportedly been arrested since September in connection with independent or reformist websites, many of which have been blocked.
Experts say it's no surprise that authorities are targeting cyberspace. After a previous crackdown on the independent and pro-reform press, the Internet had become the only free media platform in Iran.
In October, some 20 European news websites expressed their concern at the recent imprisonment of Iranian online journalists. "At the time when the Internet has become one of the main sources of news, protecting online journalists and publications is the key to defending press freedom," the European online media said in their joint statement.
Moini from Reporters Without Borders believes that despite its latest crackdown, Iran's regime won't succeed in curtailing freedom of expression in cyberspace. "I give you the example of the People's Republic of China, which is much stronger than the Islamic Republic of Iran in financial terms and in terms of its ability and possibilities and which has been cracking down [on the Internet] for years. Today, the result is that it has not been able to restrict the Internet. I think, on the century, we are living [in a world] where the Internet is a tool for living -- the Islamic Republic cannot [restrict] it," Moini said.
There are currently nearly 5 million Internet users in Iran, compared to 250,000 just four years ago.