HEighty countries make up the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. At the top are the Scandinavian countries, Germany occupies 16th place. And at the very bottom – at some distance from Russia (155th place) or Afghanistan (156th place) – is Iran with its state-controlled media, a “comprehensive Internet was censored, monitored and, for example during demonstrations critical of the government, switched off for long periods of time” and critical media workers who are “constantly harassed, repeatedly arbitrarily arrested or sentenced to long prison terms in unfair trials”.
Deutsche Welle is in demand like never before
There is also great pressure on foreign broadcasters such as Deutsche Welle, which has been reporting in Persian for 60 years – formerly on the radio, now in multimedia via the website, YouTube or social media such as an Instagram channel with 1.6 million followers. The offers, which are produced by a forty-strong editorial team in Bonn and Berlin, have been in greater demand than ever since the protests began, despite the internet blockade. And the regime is reacting. It accuses the editorial team of supporting “terrorists” and intimidates friends living in Iran and the families of the channel’s employees. “We’ve seen a lot,” says editor-in-chief Yalda Zarbakhch, “but not on this scale.”
Can you name examples? Youhanna Najdi, one of the most well-known faces of the editorial team, at least wants to tell us about the attempts at intimidation he has experienced since he started working for Deutsche Welle a year ago. Although he had been threatened before: “I have been reporting critically on topics such as the Revolutionary Guard or corruption for many years. That wasn’t possible when I was still living in Iran. But it became possible when I went abroad.”
His relatives who remained at home felt the consequences. They were summoned to the security authorities in response to individual contributions and an open letter he signed with thirty regime critics. She was questioned and urged to invite Najdi to a meeting in Turkey. “And you leave the rest to us,” they said. But Najdi didn’t get involved in a meeting, just as he wanted to promise his departure from journalism in the phone call: “I’m sure the call was recorded.” It ended with tears on the other end of the line. The relatives said, “You make everything very difficult for us.”
Since he has been working for Deutsche Welle, the attempts at intimidation have not only continued, they have become increasingly widespread. In July, Najdi reported for Deutsche Welle on the trial of an Iranian judicial officer who was sentenced to life imprisonment in Stockholm for involvement in mass executions. Now the security authorities in Iran themselves contacted friends and strangers who follow Najdi on Instagram: “They asked her to unfollow me and used the term ‘moaned’ for me, which means something like enemy of the state and punishable by death can be.”
“Pressure is greater than ever”
Against this background, wouldn’t it be better to remain silent about such threatening gestures? “It’s not a question for me,” replies Najdi, who is also willing to be named. “Reporting on the threats is important because many other journalists have the same experience as me.” Some react like he does, feeling encouraged in their work by the regime’s reactions. In others, the regime, which has arrested more than 18,000 people and even executed two of them since the protest wave began, is having success with its intimidation.
“The pressure under which our journalists work is greater than ever before,” says editor-in-chief Yalda Zarbakhch. “They can report on what’s happening in Iran because they work from Germany, are well networked and always get material and information from courageous citizens in Iran.” their informants do not become a problem. And as for their families and friends: “Journalists who are intimidated like Najdi used to be very few in our newsroom. Since we’ve been sanctioned by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we’ve been hearing from many more employees being made insecure in a variety of ways. Even in Germany.” The henchmen of the regime told the relatives of a journalist in no uncertain terms: “We can reach the people we are looking for anywhere. Even on the moon.”
Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders presented the Press Freedom Awards in Paris on Monday. This year they go to the journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Yevhen Maloletka (“Effect”) from Ukraine, Omar Radi (“Independence”) from Morocco and in the category “Courage” to the Iranian journalist Narges Mohammadi, who has been repeatedly arrested and mistreated and tortured, but not even silenced in prison. The mother of two children has also been in Iranian custody since November 16, 2021.