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Iran Tells Reporters: Quit Working For Outsiders


Activists from the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders take part in a protest in front of an Iran Air office in Paris in July 2012.
Stop writing about Iran, or face the consequences.

That's the message being sent to Iranian journalists working outside the country, along with warnings that their reputations, finances, and families are at risk should they refuse to comply.

Relatives of political journalist Ali Asgar Ramezanpour, who works from London, say they have been told by Iran's intelligence officials to "tell him to quit his activities and return to Iran or expect more pressure."

The relatives say they have already been detained a number of times, interrogated, threatened, and denied promotion and benefits at work -- all because of Ramezanpour's work as a journalist abroad.

Ramezanpour, a former deputy culture minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, contributes to a number of Persian-language media outlets outside the country. He says that apart from the pressure on his family there have been also attempts to discredit him.


Ramezanpour says he's been labeled a "spy" in hard-line newspapers and also on state television, where some of his private photos -- apparently obtained through the hacking of his Facebook account -- were put on display.

The attempt to silence Ramezanpour appears to be part of a larger campaign by the Iranian authorities who, in the past year, have stepped up intimidation efforts against journalists and media workers based outside the country.

The campaign includes threats and arrest of family members and online harassment including the spread of false accusations, rumors -- sometimes of a sexual nature -- and insults. Those giving interviews to Persian-language media from inside the country have been threatened and in some cases sentenced to prison.

Staff at RFE/RL's Radio Farda have been labeled spies by the Iranian authorities.
Staff at RFE/RL's Radio Farda have been labeled spies by the Iranian authorities.
In one instance, a relative of a reporter with the BBC's Persian service was imprisoned in February 2012, and the reporter interrogated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps over Skype.

Armand Mostofi, director of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, says there have been 20 cases in which relatives of his staff members have been harassed, including through threats and detention by authorities.

One Radio Farda reporter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his close relatives have been summoned to the Intelligence Ministry and other intelligence organs a number of times in recent months.

"They have been told that they have to persuade me to return to Iran and stop producing programs for Radio Farda," the reporter said. "The authorities have also warned my family over their social activities."

Threats have also been made in the state-controlled media.

One of the most recent examples is a claim made on January 3 by the hard-line "Bultannews," which is said to be close to security bodies. The website quoted an "informed source" as saying that an intelligence body is aiming to create judicial cases against Iranians working for "counterrevolutionary" networks supporting "terrorists," and obtaining international arrest warrants against them.

'Training Terrorists'

The unnamed source added that all of the belongings and bank accounts of those individuals would be investigated and "dealt with." The website said those working with Persian-language media -- including Radio Farda, BBC, and VOA -- would be subjected to the measures.

Labeling international news outlets as terrorist groups or spy networks is among the tactics employed by the Iranian regime to discredit their work and prevent citizens from contacting them.

Mehdi Mohammadi, a commentator with the hard-line "Kayhan" daily, in January claimed during a live television show that the BBC and Radio Farda were training terrorists.

"Someone from inside the country contacts Radio Farda, saying, 'I would like to cooperate with you in the field of news.' Within six months, he's taking up arms," Mohammadi said. "It means Radio Farda is not a news organization. Radio Farda and the BBC are institutions for attracting terrorists."

In September, the conservative "Resalat" daily called for "legal, political, and security" measures against Iranian journalists working for Persian-language media, which he described as "the media soldiers of the West."

While the intimidation efforts were originally aimed at journalists, their scope appears to have broadened, Ramezanpour believes. "Until recently those who were involved in politics, such as myself, were pressured, but [the authorities] would, for example, leave artists alone. But in recent months [the authorities] have also turned their attention toward artists," he says.

"For example, one who works in animation. His mother has been summoned and told that authorities will block her retirement payments, or that they will prevent her son from sending her money from outside the country."

Reza Moini, an Iran researcher at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), says the Iranian establishment is trying to export its media-repression policies. "It is an attempt to stop the free flow of information. The main goal is to transfer the censorship and repression that prevails inside the country to free media that are based outside," Moini says.

In the past three years, RSF has recorded a dozen arrests and instances of threats against the families of journalists working for foreign-based organizations and international news agencies, the French media watchdog said on January 9.

One political analyst and journalist, whose family members have been threatened inside the country, predicts in an interview with RFE/RL that the efforts could intensify ahead of the June 14 presidential vote.

"[Authorities] are now focusing their efforts on those based outside the country," the journalist says. "They don’t want to be surprised [by their coverage] anymore."

Iranian authorities successfully prevented media inside Iran from covering the mass street protests and subsequent crackdown that followed the disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Persian-language media outside the country managed to cover the protests from afar, including reports of human rights abuses, through their contacts inside the country.

Persian-language media based outside of Iran, including Radio Farda, often challenge Iran's official version of events. They also provide a platform for activists to express themselves and discuss issues considered taboo inside the country.

The intimidation campaign comes amid ongoing extensive censorship and jamming efforts by Iranian authorities. The jamming of broadcasts by Persian-language news outlets often intensifies at sensitive political times. In October, when protests took place in the Iranian capital over the floundering Iranian currency, the Iranian regime disrupted broadcasts by Radio Farda through satellite jamming.

* This article has been corrected to clarify the number of harassment cases reported by staff of Radio Farda.
Written and reported by Golnaz Esfandiari, with contributions from Radio Farda broadcaster Mohammad Zarghami.

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