Monday, April 17, 2006

Darker Days Ahead for Journalists

Shahram Rafizadeh, Rooz Online:
By sacking more than 30 reporters from Iran’s Labor News Agency (ILNA), the ultra-hardline government of Ahmadinejad has stepped into a new phase in its policy of suppressing independent news agencies and journalists. ILNA is known for its coverage and interest in following up on the arrests of political prisoners and harassment of dissident groups, so this development is a setback for all freedom seeking individuals in Iran. READ MORE

The mass dismissal of ILNA journalists is officially justified on financial grounds, but observers note that those removed have been from the news agency’s political desk, and not proportionately from the other sections.

In protest to the mass sacking of journalists, a number of other editors and writers including well-known editor Massih Alinejad have submitted their resignations to ILNA. Alinejad’s name gained prominence last year when he was expelled from the parliament for uncovering and publishing news about confidential financial privileges of MPs. He then joined ILNA and worked there as a reporter covering the parliament.

Since Ahmadinejad’s administration came to power late last year, there has been much fear and speculation that pro-reformist reporters and journalists would be forced out of news agencies and government controlled media. Now, there is evidence for such concerns. Meysam Anghabi, a senior political advisor to the managing director of ILNA is also among those dismissed, as are Ali Pir Hossein Lou, Hamed Sheipour (the diplomatic chief of ILNA), Ahmadian, Aresdani and Fariba Pejveh.

There have also been earlier reports that Ali Asghar Shafiian, the political chief of ISNA student news agency news agency. He confirmed the news on his personal webblog. Abolfazl Fateh, the manager of ISNA student news agency news agency who had earlier been a student activist himself resigned from his post soon after the new president and his hardline team came to power late last year.

News websites close to the hardline administration had in the past repeatedly accused ILNA and ISNA student news agency of “providing food for the enemy and so had worked to purge the agencies of non-hardline thinkers and professionals. Another news agency, Mehr which is run by the Islamic Propagation Organization had published a report prepared by a security agency of the government which claimed that most of the human rights news quoted by the international media comes from news published by ILNA and ISNA student news agency, indicating the opinion of the security agencies regarding the two largest news agencies in the country.

IRNA, another news agency which belongs to a larger news group that also owns Iran publishing company and Iran newspaper was until recently considered to be close to reformers. But since the last few months, its composition at the management and lower levels has changed so much that the nature and type of news coverage it provides is unrecognizable from its earlier work.

But the pressure on journalists has not been confined to firings. During the last six months, scores of reporters from a range of publications and news agencies had been summoned by security agencies and interrogated over their news sources, affiliations, connections, etc. Finally, all would be given warnings about their writings. In addition to this, government officials have also directly instructed the media not to cover certain news, or stress identified issues on specific political events and developments.

Other methods too have been used as is demonstrated by Vahid Pour Ostad. As a reformist journalist, he wrote in his own web blog that he had been attacked by a person who put a knife on his throat. Pour Ostad who had been detained in the past and is now active in the Etemad Melli newspaper (belonging to reformers) wrote that as he walked from his office to his house, he was hit from the back and then immediately a knife was put on his throat threatening him to remain quiet or be killed. Just two weeks earlier, two sports journalists died in suspicious circumstances. And even though the newspaper filed a complaint with the police about this incident, the police has not come forward with any progress or even indications to show that it is pursuing the case.

Similar incidents may not lead to any discovery and arrests, but what is clear is that the conditions over the country make media professionals feel insecure and under the gun.