Iran widens journalist crackdown before demonstrations

Iran has stepped up arrests and told Iranian journalists that they'll be dealt with as 'spies' if they work for foreign news outlets, in an apparent attempt to tighten information flows ahead of Green Movement protests scheduled for Thursday.

Supporters of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi attend a rally in Tehran in this June 2009 file photo. Thursday's expected mass demonstrations have sparked an increase in crackdown on journalists.

An Iran military official condemned all Iranian journalists working for foreign media as “spies” and called for them to be “dealt with in the harshest way possible” in the run-up to expected mass demonstrations on Thursday.

 Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri said that working with foreign media should be declared a crime, according to the ISNA news agency. He said the foreign press is “acting as a control room for a soft coup d’état.”

General Jazayeri's comments were the latest in a series of measures taken to stifle dissent and public communications about Iran's political situation as the country turns towards the anniversary of the 1979 revolution on Thursday. Supporters of the opposition Green Movement have promised to be out in force on Thursday. On Wednesday, the Iranian police said a number of protest organizers have been arrested.

A renewed wave of arrests has increased the number of imprisoned Iranian journalists to 47, the Committee to Protect Journalists said.

“Iran is No. 1 in the world in jailing journalists by a long shot,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. “The next highest is China and they’re in the mid-20s even though they have a population of 1.3 billion.”

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders pegged the number of detained journalists and “netizens” at 65, “a figure that is without precedent since (the organization) was created in 1985,” according to Secretary-General Jean Francois Julliard.

"Counterrevolutionary Zionists"

On Sunday, the public relations office of the Ministry of Intelligence announced the arrest of seven journalists described as "elements of a counter-revolutionary Zionist satellite station" and in the "official pay" of US intelligence organizations. They were later identified as working for the US-funded Radio Farda, though the Prague-based organization denies employing anyone inside Iran.

Their arrest marks an increasing intolerance towards foreign media. Unlike the Washington-based Voice of America (VOA) television, the Prague-headquartered Radio Farda was tolerated and would regularly interview Iranian politicians.

“They thought the people’s protests would last no longer than a week but it’s now been seven months,” said Mahdad, a journalist who wrote for several now-banned newspapers and is currently in exile in an African country. “After the election they realized that everyone is a media, not only journalists.”

Dozens of Iranian journalists in exile languish in Iran’s neighboring countries or several European countries. Others have even been forced to search for work in Afghanistan, the only other newsworthy Persian-speaking country in the region.

Working for the BBC and VOA was criminalized on Jan. 5, when the Intelligence Ministry issued a list banning contact with more than 60 Western organizations that included think-tanks, universities, and media outlets.

“It doesn’t mean such journalists are the kind of spies who receive money for selling information to the enemy but they are certainly working against their country’s interests,” said Hamidreza Jeihani, a researcher in Esfahan University’s Department of Sociology and regime supporter. “But they may not be aware they are acting against their own country.”

Aside from imprisonment, the Islamic Republic employs other ways of pressuring journalists, including domestic exile and temporary or lifetime bans from working.

“If a Greek journalist should go to a Turkic minority area in his own country and write a positive story about them, shouldn’t the Greek government arrest him?” asked Jeihani rhetorically. “In the same way, the Iranian government is moving against fifth-columnists.”

The Ministry of Islamic Guidance announced that 300 foreign journalists will cover the anniversary of the Revolution march set for Thursday, 40 of them visiting from abroad.

“Let’s hope they’re not thrown out like the last time the Iranian government invited foreign journalists to witness democracy in action,” said Abdel Dayam, commenting on information that the journalists will be shepherded to and from the regime-orchestrated event and not allowed to cover other areas of the capital where opposition demonstrations may be occurring.

“It invites the inevitable question: What is the Iranian government trying to hide and why are they inviting journalists in if they have something to hide?”

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