Press freedom advocates have called for the Iranian ambassador to the United Kingdom to look into the cases of several jailed journalists in Iran following comments he made about the conduct of a UK-based satellite TV station.
On November 5, the Iranian Ambassador to the UK Hamid Baedinejad tweeted: “Some of Iran International employees who wish to leave the TV network have called my embassy and complained about the intimidations made by the network managers that if they leave, they will be sued. The embassy has appointed a special attorney to provide these reporters with legal advice.”
This tweet led to a response from press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which campaigns for the rights of journalists. The organization retweeted the ambassador’s tweet, and after thanking him, asked him if he could be of any help with respect to the following jailed journalists: Mohammad Sharifi-Moghadam, Kasra Noori, Amir Noori, Reza Entesari, Sina Entesari, and Hengameh Shahidi. They are currently being held in Iranian prisons without access to their lawyers.
A few days prior to the exchange, a group of Iranian exiled journalists, including Mohammad Sahimi and Mehdi Jami, published articles about the financial sponsor for UK-based Iran International satellite TV. They claimed that Iran International is sponsored by Saudi Arabia and follows their policies when establishing its editorial lines.
Iran International managers and hosts are known reformist figures and many are former employees of BBC Persian, VOA Farsi, and Manoto TV. They include Mohammad Manzarpour (manager), Ali-Asghar Ramezanpour (chief editor), Hussein Rasam, Negar Mortazavi, Mahmonir Rahimi and Pantea Modiri.
According to the journalists’ accounts, some of the programs aired on the network had not been agreed upon by all the relevant colleagues, resulting in some of them choosing to leave the network. Examples include news coverage of a People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) gathering — the MEK is a controversial anti-regime organization that Iran and other countries consider to be a terrorist organization — and an interview with a spokesman from Al-Ahwaz, a separatist Arab militia, after it claimed responsibility for the attack on a military parade in Iran.
Why not speak out about jailed journalists?
When the Iranian ambassador in London spoke out against Iran International, RSF took the opportunity to ask why he had not spoken on the widespread repression of journalists over the last month, including the arrests of Pouyan Khoshhal on October 24, Vahid Ahang on October 31 and Masoud Kazemi on November 5.
And, quite apart from the significant question RSF raised, recent violence against journalists — including the horrific murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey — have pointed to concerns about Iranian journalists’ safety. Do journalists who formerly worked for BBC Persian, VOA Farsi, Manoto TV, and Iran International feel safe in Iran’s embassy? Do any of them believe the ambassador's tweet to be genuine? Has the Islamic Republic ever helped an Iranian journalist, apart from those employees working for the state media, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting?
The journalists mentioned in RSF’s tweet are not dangerous or vicious criminals, they are people who chose journalism as their career. But they remain in prison without access to their lawyers and denied family visits, and they have been there for weeks. Hengameh Shahidi has been in prison before, and has told her story of being brutally interrogated and physically assaulted while incarcerated. Photographs of Shahidi before and after her first prison sentence provide a good indication of the toll prison takes on journalists. She was arrested again when she complained about judiciary officials in Iran on June 26.
Shahidi faced harsh interrogations and physical abuse while in prison
Human rights organizations across the globe repeatedly rank the Islamic Republic as one of the biggest jailers of journalists and one of the worst environments for press freedom. Whether the administration is moderate or conservative, journalists face harsh treatment and are accused of spying, plotting to overthrow the regime and acting against Islam and the state. Given such a dark history, the Iranian diplomat’s statements seem more like a piece of satire rather than a true offer to help journalists, who could probably never trust him in the first place.