Studies

Harassment of Ahwazi media activists by Iran’s regime continues to violate freedom of expression

The Iranian regime has a bloody history in suppressing intellectuals, including media activists and journalists, in Ahwaz since its establishment in 1979. This is part of its ongoing actions in cracking down on any Ahwazi voice calling for the basic right to life for citizens.

This wholescale persecution has increased in two distinct phases, firstly, the period during the April 2005 protests, as evidenced by the arrest of a large number of journalists, including Youssef Azizi Bani-Torof and Mohammad Hassan Fallahiya. The second, more insidious phase is occurring during a period of increasing social media communication throughout the world, and typified by many Ahwazi citizens being active through ‘social media’ to try and have their voices heard in the free world. The Iranian regime continues to harass these activists, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, women’s rights defenders and trade unionists who live in Ahwaz, through arbitrary arrest, detention, and increasingly harsh prison sentences, many on trumped-up charges related to so-called ‘national security’.

Public anger continues to grow at deteriorating living conditions, economic collapse, environmental catastrophe caused by years of deliberate neglect by the regime, confiscation of lands, vandalism of homes, building dams which have a deleterious effect on the Ahwazi region, arbitrary arrests and harsh repression.  Now the regime continues to brutally confront Ahwazi media activists specifically, accusing them of ‘threatening national security’ (i.e. criticising it human rights violations), in order to issue harsh sentences such as imprisonment, torture under interrogation and even threats of execution.

Recently, media activist Fouad Albofteleh Nejat became a victim of the Iranian regime’s policy to suppress any activity in Ahwaz, including any activity by civilians in the media.  He was arrested because the regime is increasingly concerned about anyone revealing the long-hidden truth concerning the wide-spread oppression against Ahwazis to prevent the voices of the oppressed Ahwazis from being heard and broadcast to the free world.[1]

 

Media activists who have been arrested

As mentioned above, many media activists, such as journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, women’s rights defenders and trade unionists have been arrested by the Iranian regime, particularly since 2005. Ahwazi human rights groups have recently reported the arrest by the regime of a media online activist, Fouad Albofteleh Nejat, 38, on Friday, 14 August.

According to the Khakzadegan telegram channel, Fouad, from Koy Ramadan in the city of Ahwaz, has worked with several local publications in Ahwaz to criticise and expose human rights violations experienced by the Ahwazi people. Khakzadegan reported that in 2008, Fouad was fired from working as a reporter due to writing about the blatant repression of the Ahwazi population.  In 2014, he was arrested by security services for writing articles critical of the regime authorities, and he was tortured in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, on charges of “threatening national security”.

There are many more cases of Ahwazi journalists arrested by the Iranian authorities in recent years. A striking example is the arrest of Naim Hamidi and Sayed Nashan Alboshoka in 2018 for writing articles criticising the performance of the education directorate in Ahwaz.  They condemned the terrible conditions and poor quality of education in regional schools compared to other regions in Iran, also denouncing the racist and discriminatory employment policies of the Iran Ministry of Education. They were released after months of imprisonment only on condition of not writing anything further related to Ahwaz.[2]

The list of such cases is lengthy. For example, the prominent journalist Mohammad Hassan Fallahiya, who was working for the Arabic language service Al-Alam radio and television, was arrested in November 2006 on charges of ‘acting against national security’. He was sentenced to three years in prison. After serving his sentence, he was forced to flee the country and seek asylum from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey, eventually settling in the United States, where he is currently working in a free and democratic society in order to expose the brutal policy of the Iranian regime against the Ahwazis. [3]

Another journalist who met the same fate was Youssef Azizi Bani-Torof, an Ahwazi rights activist, writer and former member of the Association of Iran’s Writers. He has translated many books and articles from Arabic to Persian. On 25 April 2005, he was arrested at his home by security forces allegedly in connection with the Ahwazi popular uprising earlier that month and held at the infamous Evin Prison with other Iranian journalists and dissidents. He was released on 28 June 2005. In August 2008, he was sentenced to five years in prison. While appealing the decision, he fled Iran and gained political asylum in the United Kingdom. [4]

Ali Badri is another Ahwazi human rights activist and blogger who was arrested in 2011.  Badri endured torture and was kept for several months in one of the secret solitary confinement ran by the regime intelligence services. Amnesty International also reported that Iranian security services arrested Hatem Abiyat, 35, from the city of Hamidiyeh, on 6 April 2015 due to criticising the Iranian authorities’ violent actions on social media during the 2005 uprising. On 7 April 2015 security services also arrested Mustafa Heidari, a 17-year-old youth, due to criticism of the regime’s policy on social media, and calling for peaceful demonstrations.

Iranian security services arrested 26-year-old Zakiya Nissi in May 2016, due to her activities in the field of culture and the environment – she published news of popular protests against the transfer of Karoon River water from Ahwaz to Persian provinces in central Iran.  Iranian security forces also arrested Ahwazi online activist, Hakim Marwani (22 years old) from the Malashiya neighbourhood in November 2016.  He is an active photographer on social media and news networks, who publishes photographs and videos that show poverty and deprivation as well as depict social and cultural lifestyles and Arab heritage in Ahwaz.  In April 2018, Iranian security forces launched a campaign of arrests in Ahwaz, detaining 50 labour activists who criticised and publicised the living conditions of workers in Ahwaz on social media.  Abdullah Marmazi, an online human rights activist, was arrested in October 2018 on charges of threatening national security, and was sentenced to death by the revolutionary court in Ahwaz.  In April 2019, the Iranian security services arrested Ahwazi activists and poets active in the field of cultural heritage and literature on social media – these are Hassan Torfi, Hassan Sa’adi, Araf Farough Sari and Shihab Badawi.  On Monday, 10 June 2019, Iranian security personnel in Ahwaz arrested environmental activist Masoud Kanani at his home due to his criticism of the Iranian authorities’ environment policy in Ahwaz.

 

Denouncements and International Comment

It is known that a large number of media activists and journalists in Ahwaz are at risk and are being tried by revolutionary courts in Iran because of their media activities which focus on the dire humanitarian situation in Ahwaz. The authorities also prevent any communication between Ahwazi journalists and free media outside the country. Therefore, international human rights organisations continue to denounce Iran for its arrest of journalists in Ahwaz and Iran, it now being one of the worst countries violating freedom of expression this way, on a par with China and North Korea.

The Iranian regime’s history of committing serious human rights violations, specifically against journalists, is well documented. In several reports; international organisations have severely rebuked Iran for its violations of freedom of expression and arrests of journalists, blaming the regime for “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detentions.”

 Reporters Without Borders noted in April 2019 that Iran had sent at least 860 journalists to prison.  In 2019, it ranked 170th out of 180 states in terms of media freedom in the world. Reporters Without Borders confirmed that more than 50 journalists outside Iran have been threatened in various ways, including 16 of them with death threats. On 11 December 2019, the Committee to Protect Journalists announced that Iran remains the world’s largest prison for journalists.[5]

Professor Gill Leighton, a Political Scientist, based in Canada, told DUSC: “Tehran has persecuted and intimidated BBC Persian journalists and their families, arbitrarily arresting them and freezing their assets.  In November 2019, as nationwide protests consumed Iran and met a bloody response from the regime, Iran threatened to snatch BBC journalists off the streets of London for reporting on this, if they refused to resign.  Staff at Iran International, a media news channel also based in London, received similar threats for reporting on the 2019 protests.”

The annual report of the Committee to Protect Journalists consistently includes Iran in the top five worst countries globally for the number of journalists arrested per capita.  DUSC in its previous report noted that “Ahwazi journalists face even worse conditions than their ethnically Iranian counterparts, with ethnically Persian journalists at least allowed a limited degree of freedom of expression; even this restricted degree of freedom is wholly absent for Ahwazis who are effectively treated as second-class citizens due to their ethnicity, with any activism or journalism criticising the regime’s policies inevitably resulting in persecution, imprisonment, torture and often execution.”

Ahwazi journalist Nouri Hamzeh said in an interview with DUSC that “the situation of Ahwazi journalists is catastrophic, despite the lack of accurate statistics on the number of journalists arrested in Ahwaz.”

Hamza indicated that among the most prominent journalists who were arrested were Youssef Azizi Bani-Torof and Amir Nissi, who used to work for Hamsaya newspaper in Ahwaz, as well as Lafta Sarkheh, who was sentenced to three years in prison for media activity.

Hamza also stated that “Ahwaz is viewed as a security zone and the security services are controlling the region, so they are considering the press and journalists as a threat to their national security. Therefore, the security services deal violently with any media outlet that covers news in Ahwaz.” 

He emphasised that there are no real media in Ahwaz, so most Ahwazi journalists do not have job opportunities and suffer from economic crises; thus, they focus on weblogs and social media for their media activities. There is no law that protects them, and they do not have insurance because they suffer from racism and exclusion by the regime.

 Hamza pointed out that the Iranian security authorities stopped the publishing of Hamsaya and Sowt Al-Sha’ab (Voice of the People) newspapers in Ahwaz and have prevented all Ahwazi journalists from interacting with local and foreign media. Even Amir Hazbayi, the Director of Hamsaya newspaper, was arrested by the security services.

Irina Tsukerman, International Human Rights Lawyer, told DUSC that “freedom of speech and conscience extends to all forms of expression, not just print publications or TV reporting,” adding: “With the breakthrough in communications, print publications are increasingly going digital, which allows them to reach wider audiences. Activism and journalism are finding cyberspace a more effective medium of expression for their ideas, which also gives a level of protection against physical congregation during pandemics or when writers are under threat of physical surveillance by a hostile regime or factional forces. Iranian authorities have been particularly threatened by physical protests in Ahwaz, but also fear the spread of accurate information about the local oppression, which is now starting to reach the Western media and international NGOs.”

Tsukerman explained that “in Iran specifically, online activists and journalists have been able to bypass the regime infiltration of opposition groups and the ability to disperse physical gatherings of activism. Ahwazis have been harder to infiltrate than other segments of the population. On top of that, the new danger for the regime is the use of cyberspace to plan effective physical gatherings, which is why the regime has lately resorted to turning off the Internet to prevent implementation of innovative strategy and to keep Ahwazis from being able to communicate with other populations in a secure way. In short, cyberspace allows journalists and activists to do their job in exposing Iran’s brutality and illegal activities and to uncover lies and propaganda, which complicates the regime’s efforts in creating facades to do business and to avoid scrutiny.”

Tsukerman stressed that “human rights organisations have been silent on Ahwaz. Occasional pressure campaigns by Amnesty International and others have drawn enough attention to postpone executions of particular activists in specific cases, but overall, despite the proliferation of information about Iranian abuses against press freedom, there is been no criticism at all with respect to the persecution of Ahwazi journalists and online activists.”

She also noted that “part of the problem is that major influencers, such as the UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, who works hand in hand with these organisations, are reluctant to speak out against Iran in general, and in fact have come to the defence of pro-regime figures such as Qassim Soleimani, and this activity certainly sends a message to others that criticising Iran’s record on journalists is somehow off the table.”

Tsukerman pointed out that “there is another problem where many NGOs are infiltrated with pro-regime elements, as these elements only promote activists and journalists who represent their political factions or interests, which reduces the impact of promoting freedom of expression for the sake of some narrow political agenda.” Hence, she added that “more transparency and demands for accountability by the founders of these NGOs, and scrutiny of the reporting and staffing in these agencies, and even complete reform in some cases, are necessary to exert the hostile political influences of third parties that undermine the mission of these organisations.” “Human rights organisations should be championing individual cases as well as widely publicising the horrific data concerning the overall trends against journalism and also noting the discrimination against Ahwazis which compounds the probelm,” she noted.

Tsukerman continued: “In general, the issue with taking up these important cases is the general level of popular ignorance and the sheer amount of noise in the Western press, particularly during times of elections such as this year in the United States. The Ahwaz issue is still largely unknown or ignored in the West thanks to the choir of Iranian propagandists.”

 She said: “I cannot overestimate the importance of introducing ground-breaking new methods of communicating and getting around traditional media in spreading the word, in cultivating ties with open-minded journalists and human rights activists, and in identifying funders and donors willing to invest in better methods of promoting these causes. Ahwazis should be partnering with free speech organizations in order to draw wider international attention to their particular situation.”

She added: “Expecting ossified or corrupt bodies to do their jobs is an exercise in futility. A more pro-active and creative approach to getting around these obstacles should be prioritised instead of meaningless hashtag campaigns with no follow-up or relying on a few human rights monopolies dominated by pro-regime apparatchiks to do the right thing.”

Mohammad Hassan Fallahiya, a prominent Ahwazi journalist, who was in prison for three years (2006-2009), said that “the Iranian security services arrested me in 2006 on charges of action against national security by publishing news, communicating with Baluchi dissident groups and publishing videos about the 2005 demonstrations in Ahwaz to Arab media such as Abu Dhabi TV.”

Fallahiya also noted that “he was subjected to physical and psychological torture by the Iranian security services, where he was imprisoned for six months in Iranian intelligence cells.”

Fallahiya pointed out that the security services used vulgar language to insult Ahwazi activists during the period of detention, such as “the animal Arab, the agent, the separatist, and the stupid Arab”, “you are not a nation, but backward tribes”. Fallahiya explained that Iran is afraid of Ahwazi journalists and media activists who seek to raise awareness of the Ahwazi issue to the world. Hence, the regime usually falsely designates Ahwazi journalists of being a threat to Iranian national security to silence them, sentencing them to prison.

To conclude, there are no real media outlets in Ahwaz to cover news in the region independently. There is only local media or media retained and controlled by the government, the regime having its own TV, radio and some newspapers to publish only its own projects and ideas in Ahwaz. Therefore, Ahwazi journalists are enforced to work under regime conditions,  while the independent activists on social media often face harsh charges by the regime if they publish anything related to the human rights situation or any other issues on Ahwaz. 

The Iranian regime violates freedom of expression and opinion by arresting journalists. The regime clearly violates international norms, although international law states that freedom of expression must be respected and services and facilities must be provided for journalists and social media activists.

According to Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, protects the right to hold one’s own opinions and to express them freely without government interference. This includes the right to express views aloud (for example through public protest and demonstrations) or through published articles, books or leaflets, television or radio broadcasting, works of art, the internet and social media. The law also protects the freedom to receive information from other people by, for example, being part of an audience or reading a magazine.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
  2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his/her choice.
  3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 3 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may, therefore, be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the right or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.

Since its inclusion in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to freedom of opinion and expression has been protected (in theory) in all of the relevant international human rights treaties. In international law, freedom to express opinions and ideas is considered essential, in democratic countries, at both an individual level, insofar as it contributes to the full development of a person and being a foundation stone of democratic society. Free speech is a necessary precondition to the enjoyment of other rights, such as the right to vote, freedom of assembly and freedom of association, and is essential to ensure press freedom. However, there is it argued that there is a clear and worrying global trend, including in western democracies, of governments limiting vibrant discussion and debate within civil society and among civil society, political leaders and government.

Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights also states:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other medium of one’s choice.
  2. The exercise of the right provided for in the foregoing paragraph shall not be subject to prior censorship but shall be subject to subsequent imposition of liability, which shall be expressly established by law to the extent necessary to ensure:

(a) Respect for the rights or reputations of others;

(b) The protection of national security, public order, or public health or morals.

  1. The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting frequencies, or equipment used in the dissemination of information, or by any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions.
  2. Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph 2 above, public entertainments may be subject by law to prior censorship for the sole purpose of regulating access to them for the moral protection of childhood and adolescence.
  3. Any propaganda for war and any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitements to lawless violence or to any other similar action against any person or group of persons on any grounds including those of race, colour, religion, language, or national origin shall be considered as offences punishable by law.

International law and forms urge states to protect journalists and any other activists under the umbrella of freedom of expression. The Iranian regime, however,  not only restricts freedom of expression by arresting journalists but also threatens other social media activists and journalists with harsh punishment if they publish or share information with other media in the world.

Restricting media in Ahwaz is part of the regime’s political agenda to suppress the voice of Ahwazis.  Ahwaz is one of the most important regions in the Middle East in terms of its geopolitical map and economy, so it should have live and extensive media which covers any kind of news in Ahwaz (without focusing on regional or international news). However, the regime bans it, and it blocks all types of news agencies, newspapers and online media to control people and stifle any voice calling for equality and freedom.

There is no doubt that the continuing policy of suppressing journalists is a violation of international law and norms, and the international community itself, as well as through the Human Rights Council, must push the Iranian regime to end the restrictions imposed on journalists and media activists and on purveyors of other types of freedom of expression. If this does not happen, there will continue to be an absence of reports and articles denouncing the persecution of Ahwazi journalists and media activists.  This, in turn, will further enable and encourage the regime to increase its restrictions against Ahwazis.  It is, therefore, necessary to increase the pressure on the Iranian regime to end all kinds of restrictions in Ahwaz against journalists and media activists.

 

  By Kamil Alboshoka

Kamil Alboshoka is an Ahwazi researcher and international law specialist. He tweets under https://twitter.com/KAlboshoka?s=09

Editing by Rahim Hamid and Penina Sarah. 

Rahim Hamid is an editor and writer based in the USA and Penina Sarah is a New York Attorney, Human Rights Advocate and Commentator on the Middle East and National Security Issues. 

 

 

References

[1] Dur Untash, 16 August 2020. Link https://www.dusc.org/en/articles/7255/

[2] UNPO, February 2018. Link https://unpo.org/article/20612

[3] Dur Untash, 16 August 2020. Link https://www.dusc.org/en/articles/7255/

[4] Ibid

[5] Reporters Without Borders, link https://rsf.org/en/iran

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