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Thursday, April 5, 2012
Global Toolbox

The truth in Iran is hard(er) to find

By Bruce Swaffield

The recent headlines concerning Iran are downright frightening:

“EU Urges Iran to Stop Execution of Web Designer Saeed Malekpour”; “German reporter describes Iran jail torture”; “Iran: Death for blogging”; “Journalists' Families Targeted In Iran”; “Iran: Journalists Threatened by Email ‘You Will be Punished.’”

You might wonder if the situation is as bad as it sounds. Yes.

A colleague who teaches in Iran said in an email that there is a fluctuating “red line” when it comes to freedom of speech for journalists as well as individuals. He asked not to be identified. I have known him for six years, and his comments are similar to observations made by such organizations as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“In Iran, there is a giant distinction between the state (led by the supreme leader) and the government (led by the president),” he said. “Criticizing the latter has always been more or less allowed as far as it does not harm the former. The former is the red line, though in general it depends on the relationship between the two.

“When it’s warm (when tensions are heated), even criticizing the government is a problem (like the first six years of Ahmadinejad when the president and the leader were almost one). But when problems arise (like the situation now), then everyone is allowed to attack the government (even in some cases it becomes a virtue).”

In addition, he said, “All printed works are censured by the ministry of Culture and Guidance, and journalists are sent to court if they violate the rules; that may change drastically from time to time. Red lines exist like supporting the West and U.S. or even talking in favor of Israel. Now many journalists and their advocates are in prison for accusations like ‘action against national security.’”

Many things can threaten national security. The International Business Times reports that software designer Saeed Malekpour soon may be executed for “insulting and desecrating Islam.” Malekpour, 35, was found guilty in 2010 of creating software that was used by a pornographic site. He was arrested by Iranian officials in 2008 on a visit to his homeland from Canada.

Because of “physical and psychological torture,” Malekpour admitted to the charges even though he knew the software had been stolen from him. He has since retracted the confession.

“They asked me to falsely confess to purchasing software from the U.K. and then posting it on my website for sale,” he wrote in a letter from prison, according to the International Business Times.

The governments of the European Union, Britain, Canada and the United States have each attacked Iran’s decision in this case and many others.

"I am extremely saddened and concerned about reports that the execution of Iranian software

designer Saeed Malekpour may be imminent,” said a Feb. 21 release by Catherine Ashton, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy.

“Some weeks ago, I called on the Iranian government to review his sentence together with those of two other bloggers, Ahmadreza Hashempour and Vahid Asghari,” she added. “Civil rights organizations have raised serious concerns over the fairness, transparency and the speed of the court proceedings. ... I particularly call on Iran to halt the execution of Saeed Malekpour. His death sentence contravenes Iran’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at the beginning of a Feb. 7 press briefing that, “We want to take this opportunity to condemn again recent increases in repression with — against journalists, bloggers and free-speech advocates in Iran. We’re particularly concerned and alarmed by reports that Iranian authorities have now been harassing family members of a BBC reporter.

“This is actually quite a horrific story of Iranian authorities going into the apartment of the sister of a London-based BBC correspondent, forcing her to Skype with her sister, and then using the Skype opportunity to try to interrogate this BBC reporter in London.”

Finally, Global Voices Advocacy has revealed that numerous people in Iran were sent emails warning they would be punished for criticizing the country or its laws.

“Reliable sources, including one Iranian journalist,” the Feb. 14 article began, “have told Global Voices that several Iranian activists and journalists have received an email threatening that they will be punished according to the ‘Islamic Punishment’ law of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The subject of the email is ‘warning’ and the message says they have information and documents that implicate a list of people who are working actively ‘for the goals of foreigners’ and who support seditious activity.”

Intimidation, threats and capital punishment seem to be the rule in Iran these days. Human Rights Watch (hrw.org) claims that “600 executions were carried out in Iran in 2011. More journalists and bloggers were jailed than in any other country.”

Certainly something to think about as we wait to see what the country will do next.

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