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Journalist Who Backed Rohani Flees Iran

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

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 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.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.