Iranian journalist Masoud Kazemi was exultant when he was released from Tehran's notorious Evin prison in April 2020.
"The nightmare is officially over," tweeted Kazemi, the former editor of the monthly magazine Sedaye Parsi, posting a photo of the prison where he had been held for 300 days.
Little did he know that a new nightmare was about to begin.
Following Kazemi’s release, the feared intelligence branch of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) repeatedly summoned him and tried to force him to "cooperate."
Following many months of pressure and harassment to work with the IRGC, Kazemi left Iran for Turkey, where he and his wife are hoping to seek asylum in a third country.
Kazemi says he still worries he could be targeted by Iranian intelligence bodies, who are known to surveil Iranian activists in Turkey. He told RFE/RL that four days after purchasing a Turkish SIM card for his mobile phone, he received a call from his former interrogator who said he wanted to say "hi," in a call that let Kazemi know he hasn't been forgotten and that his location is likely known.
"I don’t feel safe," said Kazemi, who has been in Turkey for the past four months amid reports of the detention and deportation of many Iranian asylum seekers by Turkish police.
Kazemi's plight began in November 2018 when he was detained and later convicted and sentenced to a total of 4 1/2 years in prison on multiple charges of acting against national security and insulting Iran’s supreme leader, charges that stemmed from his articles and social-media posts.
The vague charges are often brought against intellectuals and activists that authorities want to silence.
Kazemi would have to serve two years -- the longest of his multiple sentences. He also would be banned from any journalistic activities for two years after his release, and he received a one-year travel ban.
But due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kazemi and thousands of other prisoners were temporarily released to prevent the spread of the deadly disease in Iran’s overpopulated prisons. Kazemi and others who had served one-third of their terms were freed for good.
Yet being out of prison did not free him from the claws of the IRGC’s intelligence branch that has in recent years arrested and pressured scores of journalists, activists, environmentalists, and dual nationals.
"During my time in prison, I got to know many political prisoners and I was in touch with them daily [after I was released]. I would then provide the media with news about [those still imprisoned] that was published without my name being cited [as the source]. That was the reason I was summoned the first time after my release," he said.
Intelligence agents played Kazemi an audio clip of one of his calls with prisoners and told him they were aware that he was providing news from inside Evin prison to media outlets.
He said the agents asked him to spy on his friends and contacts, including journalists, political activists, and women’s rights advocates. Kazemi said he was also asked to help identify some people behind several popular anonymous Twitter accounts.
When Kazemi refused, the intelligence agents threatened to open a new case against him and they also pressured his wife, Shima Tadresi, by reviving an old case against her over her criticism of the forced wearing of the hijab.
He says many journalists who have received similar pressure have either lost their jobs or were forced to quit and find other jobs. Kazemi says he knows journalists who are selling newspapers and working in cafes.
Kazemi himself, who also worked for the reformist Sharq daily, painted buildings to earn a living. When he found a public-relations job in an accounting firm, he says the IRGC threatened the firm’s manager, who then decided not to hire him.
Finally, on the day his travel ban was lifted, he applied for a passport and traveled to Turkey with his wife, hoping for a better future in a country where they could both work freely.
Kazemi’s decision to emigrate from Iran highlights the tough conditions journalists face in the country.
Dozens have been summoned, pressured, and sentenced to prison in recent years. Many have been forced to flee while those working in the country have to submit themselves to tight censorship rules and unwritten red lines.
Kazemi says in recent years the pressure by intelligence bodies on journalists has increased.
"Before [authorities] used to quickly arrest journalists, but now I know numerous journalists who have been summoned, harassed, interrogated. Their computers and other equipment -- including cell phones -- are confiscated and the content is used to threaten them and ask them to cooperate," he said.
"When a journalist gets arrested, it is reported in the media and rights and media groups react, as they did when I was arrested. But pressuring journalists is less costly for [authorities than arresting them]," Kazemi said, adding that such pressure on journalists often goes unreported.
Reza Moini, the head of the Iran/Afghanistan desk at Reporters Without Borders, told RFE/RL that in the past three years more than 50 journalists have been summoned, threatened, and interrogated -- sometimes over the phone -- by Iran’s intelligence ministry and the IRGC’s intelligence branch because of their work, including covering topics deemed sensitive by the government.
Iran is ranked 174th out of the 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2021 World Press Freedom Index.