Middle East


There's been an increase in the number of reports coming from Iran about arrests of reform minded journalists and students. Over the past few months, newspapers have been shut down by the government, journalists have been prosecuted for their work and one student activist has died in prison under suspicious circumstances.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: Ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there have been difficult periods for journalists and students in Iran. Especially in the late 1990s and into the early years of this decade, there was a vicious crackdown against students and many reform oriented newspapers and magazines were closed.

In recent years that abated and contrary to expectations, the first year of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration did not produce the kind of repressive steps that many activists expected. Until recently, says Karim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Mr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (International Crisis Group): What we've seen over the last four months is increased prison sentences for intellectuals, for journalists. There've been a couple very suspicious deaths. And I think a lot of self-censorship. People who in the past were comfortable speaking on the record and speaking out these days are self-censoring.

MIKE SHUSTER: It is difficult to get information on these developments. They are rarely reported in Iran's government dominated newspapers and television, and friends and supporters of those target are reluctant to come forward when arrests do occur. But information leaks out. Earlier this week, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns noted the trend in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (Undersecretary of State): At home, the Iranian regime renewed its campaign against journalists, against intellectuals and against democratic activists, as President Ahmadinejad tried to turn back the clock and re-impose the obsolete orthodoxies of the revolution of 1979.

SHUSTER: At least two deaths have occurred in Tehran's notorious Evin prison within the past three months. One was a long-time political prisoner whom the authorities said suffered a heart attack during a hunger strike. Another was Akbar Mohammadi, a student activist who has been in and out of prisons for the past six years. He, too, died during a hunger strike and was buried before his parents could see his body, prompting suspicions that he was tortured or beaten.

These deaths have had an effect on students who last spring seemed eager to protest actions by the government, says Bill Samii, who monitors events in Iran for Radio Free Europe.

Mr. BILL SAMII (Radio Free Europe): This new school year has just started in Iran, and so I think what the regime is trying to do, possibly by letting these guys die and perhaps rounding up individuals, is to create a sort of atmosphere of fear and intimidation, thereby discouraging any protests that might take place.

SHUSTER: As for the crackdown on journalists, the government has just closed Iran's most prominent and popular daily newspaper, Shargh. The offending material, according to sources in Iran, was a front page cartoon depicting President Ahmadinejad as a donkey.

The government also convicted a prominent reform journalist, Isa Saharkhiz, for his critical writing about Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Saharkhiz is appealing his case and remains out of prison for the moment. Two years ago, when conservatives took over Iran's Parliament, Saharkhiz was also under prosecution. In an interview with NPR, he expressed fears at that time of repression against all elements of the reform movement.

Mr. ISA SAHARKHIZ (Convicted Reform Journalist, Iran): How will they do with the press, with the journalists, with the MPs who will resign, with the party's groups and with the student movement? So we are waiting for this kind of crackdown.

SHUSTER: All of these cases have had a chilling effect on those who felt freer in recent years to criticize Iran's government, says Karim Sadjadpour.

Mr. SADJADPOUR: People don't know what the red lines are. In the past, there was very clear red lines. You didn't criticize a supreme leader, you didn't criticize the revolutionary guards, but beyond that, you know, there was a certain amount of leeway one could attain in criticism of the regime. But now again what makes the situation so harrowing is that people don't know what they can and cannot say, so they're erring on the side of caution.

SHUSTER: And they are fearful that this slow motion crackdown in Iran could gain speed in the coming months. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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