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“A Band of Deceitful Liars” – Breaking the Silence on Freedom of Expression in Iran

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“A Band of Deceitful Liars” – Breaking the Silence on Freedom of Expression in Iran

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Iran may never be far from the international headlines but it is rarely Iranian journalists who have the opportunity to shape the debate. A belligerent dictator supported by an oppressive clerical regime has succeeded in insulating the country from all internal critical analysis, in the process redefining freedom of expression to mean crimes against the state. Despite this systematic attempt to stifle a free and independent press, courageous men and women continue to report the news and reveal the realities of life from within the country, often risking long prison sentences, exile, and even their lives for simply doing their jobs.

Khamenei and Ahmadinejad: Riding roughshod over press freedom.

Walking into uncertainty, facing an impossible future and fleeing a terrifying recent past, Iranian photojournalist Ehsan Maleki set off on foot on 3 August 2009 from his home in Tehran for the 'safety' of Iraq, where homelessness, arrest and refugee status awaited. Without his passport, carrying only the bare necessities and aided by a local alcohol smuggler, the 30 year-old former Sipa (a French photo agency) photographer crossed the Iran/Iraq border on foot in an ordeal lasting more than 17 hours.

Mr Maleki had been in Tehran as people swarmed the streets in protest against the June 2009 election result that saw the reformist Green Movement fail in its bid for power. "After the election, the ministry in charge of foreign media correspondents officially banned us from reporting the protests, and my editor advised me to stay at home as it was too dangerous for photographers," he explained in an interview given to WAN-IFRA to mark World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2010. "I felt this to be a very important moment in my country's history and couldn't let it escape me by staying at home, even if they weren't going to publish my pictures. The only thing I could do was to go out."

As his colleagues were being rounded up, he had the foresight to hide his camera before himself being arrested. After a few days in a safe house he decided it was simply too risky to stay. It is a sobering thought that for Mr Maleki, and countless like him, Iraq of all places represented a route to freedom, an opportunity for a new life and a chance more than worth taking. Despite the immense dangers involved, the alternative for journalists is often prison, torture, and a televised confession to crimes against the state. For Ehsan Maleki, along with so many other Iranian journalists, self-imposed exile is the only way to stay alive.


Following the disputed presidential elections, Iranian authorities instituted severe and wide-ranging measures to silence voices critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At least 110 journalists were imprisoned and 20 news media censored in the immediate aftermath, and to date at least 23 journalists remain behind bars, around a fifth of all journalists in prison worldwide.

Over half of the cases in Iran involve journalists who were jailed on vague anti-state charges by a regime desperate to silence all forms of critical opposition. Amongst these prisoners of conscience is journalist, academic and political analyst Ahmad Zeid-Abadi, former chief editor of the Azad newspaper and a contributor to the Tehran-based daily Hamshahari and the BBC Persian service. For supporting peaceful democratic change he was sentenced last November to six years in prison and received a lifetime ban on practicing his profession.

Mr Zeid-Abadi is widely known for an open letter he wrote from prison in 2000 protesting the judiciary's treatment of imprisoned journalists. Those held by the Iranian intelligence ministry are reportedly subjected to intense pressure to publicly ask the pardon of the Revolution's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, with "repentance" seemingly "one of the conditions" for their release. Mr Zeid-Abadi refuses to denounce his convictions and in recognition of his courageous actions in the face of persecution, and for his outstanding contribution to the defence and promotion of press freedom, he was awarded the 2010 WAN-IFRA Golden Pen of Freedom at the opening ceremony of the 17th World Editors Forum in Hamburg, Germany, on 6 October.

Regrettably, the Golden Pen laureate was unable to receive the applause of the world's press in person. Accepting the award on behalf of Mr Zeid-Abadi was Akbar Ganji, a leading investigative journalist and laureate of the 2006 Golden Pen of Freedom. Mr Ganji, an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime, himself spent six years in prison for calling for social and political reform in Iran during a conference in Berlin in 2000.

"Iran today is under the occupation of a band of deceitful liars, the true nature of which is best evident in the dungeons of Evin, Kahrizak, and Raja'i Shahr," declared Mr Ganji in his powerful speech delivered to nearly 600 editors from around the world. "How this regime nourishes the rise of the lowliest characters, and how despicable this regime is, can only be witnessed in the hellish corners of these prisons. Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei have done things without the slightest hesitation and have concocted all sorts of religious and non-religious justifications for what they do.

"In their ideological Islam, anything, absolutely any heinous act, is considered justifiable. It is for that reason that in the government of the Supreme Jurist anything, absolutely anything, is permissible in order to break down political prisoners and violate their human dignity. I have no doubt that if Ahmad Zeid-Abadi were here with us he would have shared the honour of this prestigious award with all the other political prisoners. One must interpret these awards as a kind of ethical and moral endorsement of democratic activists who are committed to liberty and human rights."

Silence Reigns

Iran is a complex country and one that remains largely enigmatic to the outside majority. While the world views Iran with a large amount of incomprehension, Iran stares back with a high level of suspicion, a standoff that can only be prolonged so long as the independent press in Iran is stifled. The coming decade will see the Islamic Republic play an increasingly important role in defining geo-political relations - both on the regional and international stage - when it comes to such diverse issues as the nuclear question, oil supplies, and the role of Islam within the structure of global governance. Quite how the current regime will handle these issues is the burning question; such is the level of obscurity that presently surrounds so many of these critical talking points.

Should Iran continue down its present path of denying the space for its citizens to discuss the nature of their own country, debate its policy direction and have their voices heard, then the regime will be forced into further repressive measures to maintain its grip on power. The people will not stay silent, and those on the outside will continue to dedicate themselves to the goal of achieving freedom of expression and human rights for all Iranians. What the regime knows perfectly well is there is not a single prison large enough, not even the notorious Evin, which could possibly hold them all. 


Ahmad Zeid-Abadi receives the 2010 WAN-IFRA Golden Pen of Freedom (Press Release)

Akbar Ganji's full speech

WAN-IFRA Board Press Freedom Resolution for Iran

(A version of this article first appeared in the November/December issue of the WAN-IFRA Magazine)


Andrew Heslop's picture

Andrew Heslop


2011-01-12 17:07

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The Golden Pen of Freedom is WAN-IFRA's annual award recognising individuals or organisations that have made an outstanding contribution to the defence and promotion of press freedom. Read more ...

In countless countries, journalists, editors and publishers are physically attacked, imprisoned, censored, suspended or harassed for their work. WAN-IFRA is committed to defending freedom of expression by promoting a free and independent press around the world. Read more ...