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In Iran, Six Years For One Word

Pouyan Khoshhal left Iran two months ago.

Use of a single word deemed offensive by Iranian religious officials resulted in a six-year jail sentence for journalist Pouyan Khoshhal.

In an article published in October 2018 in the daily Ebtekar, Khoshhal used the word “death” instead of “martyrdom” in a reference to Imam Husayn, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who is revered under Iran's official religion, Shi'ite Islam.

Khoshhal decided six years was too harsh of a penalty and he fled Iran.

The “inadvertent mistake,” as Khoshhal describes it, resulted in a wave of attacks by hard-liners on social media who accused him of insulting religious sanctities -- some even suggesting he should be executed.

“They created an uproar over a word,” Khoshhal told RFE/RL in a December 11 interview via phone.

Ebtekar quickly fired him and Khoshhal was arrested two days after the article was published.

He says he was held and interrogated by the feared intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who told him the social-media attacks against him were the reason he was arrested.

Khoshhal, 29, says he faced psychological pressure while detained, including 10 days in solitary confinement with no contact with the outside world.

His interrogators pressured him to falsely confess he had been told by outsiders to insult Islamic sanctities.

"They wanted to find a foreign source [to blame] to suggest that, for example, I had been told by media outside the country to drop the word [martyrdom] to violate a taboo in society," he said. "But they couldn’t find anything."

The judiciary charged him with “insulting Islamic values," "encouraging the public to commit crimes against Islamic values,” and “insulting Imam Hussayn and other members of the [Prophet Muhammad's] blessed family."

Khoshhal was released on bail after spending two months in prison.

Trafficked Out

Then a Tehran court sentenced him to 6 years in prison. He appealed the sentence and kept a low-profile hoping for a lighter punishment.

“[Authorities] told me not to do any journalistic work -- I was told not to worry that the sentence would be reduced,” he said.

Weeks later, an appeals court upheld the 6-year prison sentence for Khoshhal, who received a summons to come to the prison to serve his sentence.

“I didn’t present myself [at the prison] and [instead] left [the country] with the help of traffickers,” he said.

Khoshhal blames the "lack of freedom of the press" in Iran for his plight.

“We have to constantly practice self-censorship,” he says.

Iranian journalists constantly have to navigate written and unwritten red lines and tough censorship rules in order to perform their jobs.

During the recent protests triggered by a significant hike in the price of gasoline, the media received directives about how to cover the unrest in line with the state narrative, the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran reported.

The French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said last week that 11 journalists, especially photographers and cameramen, have been arrested in Iran since the start of the antiestablishment protests on November 16 that involved hundreds of thousands of people and led to hundreds of civilians being killed.

Iran has also pressured the families of journalists working for media outside the country, including RFE/RL’s Radio Farda and the BBC's Persian Service.

Dozens of journalists have in past years ended up in jail after crossing red lines similar to what happened in Khoshhal's case -- and many have been forced into exile.

Khoshhal -- who left Iran two months ago -- says he has mixed feelings about leaving his country and his family behind while trying to start a new life in a foreign country.

“On the one hand I’m happy to be free; on the other hand I have to start my life from zero, I have nothing.”

“I’m extremely sad [because] I wanted to stay in Iran," he said. "I didn’t publicize my prison sentence, my release on bail, hoping that the sentence would be reduced. I was ready to spend a year in prison, but not six years,” Khoshhal said.

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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 one of the authors 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.