TEHRAN -- Three weeks after authorities here arrested several Iranian journalists, saying they had been illegally working for foreign media without government permission, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence issued a statement saying three of the journalists had been freed on bail. The case offers a revealing, if at times confusing, glimpse into the unique nature of Iranian journalism, which is more complicated than it may sometimes appear from the outside.
The Intelligence Ministry statement, issued Tuesday, also said that four other journalists were wanted for questioning and thought to be in hiding; one of them, it alleged, had fled the country illegally.
The government statement asserted that several of the journalists had unknowingly been working for a network of foreign-based media outlets, which it said had “covert goals and ill intentions.”
The statement reflects the Iranian government's deep distrust of foreign media, particularly the BBC's Farsi-language station, which it accuses of illegally employing Iranian journalists who lack government permission.
Sadeq Saba, head of BBC Persian Service, wrote via e-mail: "We refute these allegations completely. We do not have, and never have had, any working relationship whatsoever with these journalists. The allegations are completely without foundation."
BBC Persian is broadcast over Iranian airwaves despite apparent efforts to block it. Millions of Iranians have access to satellite television, from which they can access news in their native language, funded by foreign governments that Iran deems hostile and often from journalists who used to work inside Iran.
Analysts say the recent arrests of journalists likely signal a tightening of media restrictions ahead of Iran’s June presidential election. But it may also have to do with internal political jockeying. All of the arrested journalists work for outlets that are associated with more reformist policies and politicians, including Shargh, Etemad, Bahar, and Arman newspapers and Aseman Weekly.
It's important and often glossed over that, although Iran has a history of jailing journalists, reporters here are often allowed to get away with much more than they were in the past. A decade ago, journalists had to navigate a far denser minefield of off-limits subjects, which has since thinned. Still, it remains a complicated media environment for local journalists to navigate.