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Left in limbo in Iran

As the crackdown on protesters fades from the headlines, fears for jailed journalists and bloggers only grow.

BOSTON — They are, in no particular order,  the son of a hardline ayatollah, a former cabinet minister, a women's rights activist, and a husband and his pregnant wife. They are the bloggers and journalists arrested in Iran's post-election crackdown, and they are being held at Section 209 of Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

And while two recent decisions by the Iranian authorities — to release the Greek freelance reporter Iason Athanasiadis, a GlobalPost contributer, and to arrest Newsweek's Maziar Bahari — have made headlines around the world, more than 30 Iranian journalists and bloggers remain in custody at Evin, well out of the international media spotlight.

As focus shifts away from Iran's post-election unrest, the chances of a timely release — if any — grow slimmer.

Iran "world's worst" jailer of journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) now ranks Iran as "the world's worst jailer of journalists" following the post-election crackdown. Earlier this year, CPJ designated Iran the second-most dangerous country for bloggers.

More generally, 2009 is the first year that more journalists worldwide have been jailed for online than for print content, according to the CPJ executive director, Joel Simon.

The Iran editor for Harvard's Global Voices blogging project, who works under an alias, "Hamid Tehrani," says that at least 10 Iranian bloggers have been detained since the June 12 election, though reliable figures are hard to come by.

Although blogging and Web journalism can provide more easily accessible outlets for dissent, the case of Iran's detained journalists illustrates a drawback to the online medium.

When imprisoned, Iranian journalists who work in more traditional media — such as print and TV — benefit from their outlets' organizational resources and official press credentials. But online journalists and bloggers find themselves in a more precarious position.

"When a knock comes on the door, they don't have a network," Simon said.

Advocacy groups such as CPJ and Reporters Without Borders encounter a delicate situation when working on behalf of detained bloggers.

"Our primary role is to work closely with all the parties involved," Simon said. This has proved difficult in Iran, he said, given the country's "opaque" legal process.

According to Simon, advocacy groups "have to look at what pressure points they can apply." One favored tactic — generating publicity — can be most effective, as it threatens to "do damage to [a country's] international reputation," he said.

Yet for online journalists and bloggers, advocacy groups can only do so much. "We can't be their surrogate newsroom. We're able to step in partially, but it doesn't make up for an [accredited publication]", Simon explained.

Sam Trudeau, Reporters Without Borders' New York representative, cited both the financial resources available to established news organizations as well as their ability to rally popular criticism. "Not having that backing will definitely make it easier to crack down on somebody without too much public outcry," he said.

Ultimately, though, “repressive governments will arrest anybody,” Trudeau said.

Journalism in the Ahmadinejad era

The reformist press enjoyed a degree of freedom under Iran's previous president, Mohammed Khatami. But the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brought stricter controls on the media.

All publications require the approval of the Ministry of Culture and Guidance, which has shut down the vast majority of reformist papers in recent years. Commentators forced underground then found new avenues for airing their criticisms.

"Many have resurfaced as bloggers," Simon said.

One online critic, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, started his blog while serving as a vice president in Khatami's cabinet. Now Abtahi, known as "the blogging mullah," is a prominent opposition figure.

In a June 13 post, Abtahi's blog calls the election a "huge swindling" marred by "obvious cheating." Abtahi was detained on June 16 and remains in custody. His blog notes the arrest and states: "Whenever he gets released, he will write here."

Abtahi is known for his progressive views, but at least one blogger, the son of a conservative cleric, has made his name assailing the government from the right. Mahdi Khazali caused an election controversy earlier this year by accusing Ahmadinejad of concealing Jewish ancestry. He is now in jail.

“You don’t see a real movement to support these jailed bloggers,” Tehrani said. "There's no campaign ... no logo for them."

If you are a traditional-media journalist in prison, “you have a lot of colleagues that know you and write about you and make noise,” Tehrani said. "The bloggers cannot really organize themselves.”

Tehrani hopes to galvanize bloggers' advocacy around his March 18 Movement. The initiative commemorates the 2009 death of an Iranian blogger, Omid Reza Mir Sayafi, at Evin. The case has received far less coverage than the death of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi at the same prison in 2003.

Despite relative advantages, traditional-media journalists still find themselves in a far from enviable position. According to a spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders, Tala Dowlatshahi, there is evidence that journalists at Evin are "continuously being tortured."

Nor do strong ties to the West guarantee softer treatment, as evidenced by Kazemi's death. Maziar Bahari remains in prison despite his Newsweek affiliation and dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship.

"Iran does not recognize dual citizenship," said Rodney Moore, spokesman for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs.

Dowlatshahi said the Iranian regime "simply ignores any type of campaign" on behalf of journalists. “This is a country that detains journalists for years,” she said. "We are not optimistic in terms of their release."

More GlobalPost dispatches on the Iranian protests:

Essay: The flight from Tehran

Protester vs. protester in Iran

Revolution, Tiananmen, or something else?

Young, Iranian and ready for change

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/middle-east/090713/left-limbo-iran