Iran must release all journalists being held solely for carrying out their legitimate work, Amnesty International urged after at least 14 reporters were arrested in the past three days amid police raids on newspaper offices.
The journalists are reportedly accused of cooperating with "anti-revolutionary" Persian-language media organizations outside Iran.
"This latest example of locking-up Iran's journalists is a result of draconian restrictions on reporting which violate the right to freedom of expression and must be relaxed," said Ann Harrison, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
"All journalists who are imprisoned in Iran merely for peacefully doing their job should be released immediately and unconditionally."
The latest to be arrested – Keyvan Mehrgan, formerly of the newspaper Shargh, and Hossein Taghchi – were reportedly arrested today.
Security forces stormed the offices of several Tehran-based publications at the weekend, according to Iranian media. Ten journalists were arrested in five simultaneous raids on Sunday, while two were reportedly arrested on Saturday.
Security agents reportedly searched and videotaped the premises. They also searched some of the journalists' homes. Some had phones and press permits confiscated.
The arrests reportedly took place after warrants were issued by the Court of Media and Culture.
The journalists arrested on Sunday have been transferred to an unknown location while the two detained on Saturday were reportedly taken to Evin Prison.
The latest series of arrests follows the return to jail of Mohammad Sadiq Kaboudvand, who was sent back to Evin Prison on Friday after being released on furlough for medical treatment in December 2012.
Kaboudvand, who is in poor health, is serving a 10-and-a-half-year sentence imposed for his journalism and human rights work. It was the first time he has been allowed furlough since his arrest in 2007.
Journalists in Iran face numerous restrictions on their legitimate work, which includes peaceful criticism of the authorities and reporting on human rights issues.
Iran's Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Mohammad Hosseini, said today that the arrests of the journalists are unrelated to their work.
However, last week Prosecutor General Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei seemed to forewarn of the sweep, saying at a 21 January press conference: "Tomorrow, if any of these individuals is arrested for a criminal act, you…will scream and yell, whereas unbeknown to you that individual was the mouthpiece of the enemy.”
He also said that, according to “reliable sources”, several Iranian journalists in the country were working with westerners and "anti-revolutionaries".
The publications targeted over the weekend are Bahar, Shargh, Arman, Etemad, Aseman Weekly and the Iranian Labour News Agency. The pro-government Tabnak news website has also been suspended.
"It appears that the journalists targeted are victims of the government's paranoia about what they claim is a ‘soft revolution’ orchestrated by Western governments," said Harrison.
"Sadly, this is nothing new. Many media workers face constant harassment and intimidation by the authorities, who react ruthlessly to the slightest whiff of criticism."
Dozens of journalists have been harassed, detained and imprisoned in recent years and detainees' families have also been harassed or temporarily detained.
Many of those arrested solely because of their peaceful professional activities before and after the disputed June 2009 election remain in prison, often held in poor conditions.
“The welcome news last week that four imprisoned journalists had been granted temporary release should not have been used as an excuse to fill their places with yet more journalists,” said Harrison.
“All journalists held solely for their legitimate work must be released immediately and unconditionally as they are prisoners of conscience.”
The names of those arrested on Sunday and Monday are: Akbar Montajebi (Aseman Weekly), Emily Amraei (Bahar newspaper), Motahareh Shafie and Narges Joudaki (Arman newspaper), Pouria Alemi and Pejman Mousavi (Shargh newspaper), Sassan Aghaei, Javad Deliri and Nasrin Takhiri (Etemad newspaper), Saba Azarpeik, Keyvan Mehrgan, (Shargh), and Hossein Taghchi.
Milad Fadai Asl, the political editor of Iranian Labour News Agency and Soleyman Mohammadi, a reporter from the reformist Bahar newspaper, were reportedly arrested by security forces on Saturday night and taken to Tehran’s Evin prison.
Sassan Aghaei has been previously arrested a number of times, including in 2002 when he was arrested in connection with holding an illegal gathering marking the anniversary of 1999 student demonstrations which were brutally repressed by security forces. Milad Fadai Asl was arrested in December 2009 and sentenced to a one-year prison sentence after conviction of “spreading propaganda against the system”.
Shargh newspaper has been banned several times in the past, including for nearly three years between August 2007 and April 2010. It was banned again for three months in September 2012 after publishing a cartoon some officials deemed offensive to veterans of the Iran-Iraq war.