How Iranian journalists master expression within deadly oppression

2023-06-28. Despite a battered media landscape where journalists are jailed and executed with impunity, authorities cannot erase resistance.

by Lucinda Jordaan | June 28, 2023

The Committee to Protect Journalists has a comprehensive archive of articles on the many different incidents of media oppression in Iran. A scroll through pages of arresting headlines tells a chilling story: Iranian authorities are ruthless and relentless in their efforts to muzzle opposition, with at least one major incident per-month over the past four years alone.

Headlines from January 2019


Headlines from May 2023

Iran is an authoritarian country with a history of violent oppression. Public beatings and state-sanctioned executions are commonplace, and uprisings are summarily shot down.  

The death in detention in September 2022 of 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini – and the official denials that followed – sparked the most recent wave of nationwide protests. Efforts to clampdown on dissenting voices, particularly amongst journalists and media professionals, intensified. The regime is also becoming more sophisticated in its hunting methods, with Human Rights Watch reporting a phishing campaign led by state-affiliated hackers to compromise the online security of independent groups. 

Attacks have surged and executions have increased dramatically in the months since, with a report by the Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights (IHR) revealing that May 2023, with 142 executions, was the deadliest month since 2015. That equates to an average of four people killed per-day.

Also in May, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) called on world leaders to “radically increase pressure on the Islamic Republic to cease executions.” The letter, sent to governments of 75 countries, which include all the members of the UN Human Rights Council, outlines a range of atrocities, including: “the killing of over 500 protesters (including 71 children) by state security forces, the maiming and blinding of untold others, the arrest of at least 22,000, and the torture and rape of detainees (including children). These atrocities have been described by the UN’s top expert on Iran as crimes against humanity.”

This is against a backdrop of bold moves by Iranian leaders on the international stage. Earlier in June, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian attended a BRICS Plus gathering in Cape Town (this included original BRICS members Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, together with other countries in the process of joining the group). Amirabdollahian proclaimed to be “opening the diplomatic path to secure the removal of oppressive sanctions,” while “seriously following the route to neutralising that impact.”

Regardless of public statements, the country is upping the ante on human rights abuses, with a wave of arrests, executions and new laws designed to silence women: on May 21, the government approved and sent a new Hijab bill to Parliament in further efforts to crackdown on women and their supporters. 

According to Iran Focus, an independent non-profit news service focusing on events in Iran, Iraq and the Middle East, the bill “is among a wide range of measures the regime has taken to crack down on women, who have played a leading role in nationwide protests in recent years. However, despite these efforts by the regime, women continue to come to the streets every day to express their hatred and their desire for regime change.

Women journalists were an early target for authorities during the recent protests. Both Niloofar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, the 2023 Golden Pen of Freedom laureates, who were first to report on Amini’s death and cover her funeral, have been arrested and face separate “trials”.  The two are part of a swathe of what Reporters Without Borders described in October as an “unprecedented number of women journalists now detained in Iran.”

The exact number of women journalists arrested is unclear: some watchdog groups claim 17 women journalists have been detained, others say the figure could be three times higher. 

In May, The Guardian reported on death threats levelled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) – the ‘morality police’ – against women journalists, and revealed that “much of the brutality has been focused on citizen journalists, both male and female, whose reports and photos were seen across Iran and abroad.”

“Out of fear of international reaction, the Iranian government harasses well-known journalists less, but punishes anonymous citizen journalists,” said a journalist quoted in the piece. “I know many of them [citizen journalists] who were beaten in custody, and their legs were broken. All the videos and pictures published during the protests were from these citizen journalists, not official media,” the journalist continued.

Incredibly, the women of Iran are not backing down: protests continue daily, and women are openly and actively resisting the authorities’ efforts to control them.

Counting the costs

Note: given the ongoing daily arrests, detentions and executions, these numbers are not definitive: 

  • CPJ estimates that at least 98 journalists and bloggers have been arrested, half of whom are women.
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF) estimates that 55 journalists have been arrested since the start of the protests, 27 of whom are still being held with others released on bail awaiting sentencing.
  • RSF says 17 female journalists have been arrested since the start of the uprising, the highest number over a five-month period in the history of the Islamic Republic.
  • RSF’s World Press Freedom Index puts Iran among the world’s worst 10 countries for freedom of the press.


Share via
Copy link