The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Jailing journalists in Iran is a threat against all civil society

A copy of Iranian daily newspaper Hammihan with a drawing featuring Iranian journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi with the headline "Ban the journalism" on Oct. 30. (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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According to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s intelligence agencies, Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi are not just agents of the CIA, MI6 and Mossad, but spies for the Saudis and “several other countries,” too.

Of course, the two women are none of those things; they’re journalists, among the dozens of reporters who have been arrested during the past several weeks of protests in Iran. Both have reported closely on the story of Mahsa Amini, the young Kurdish Iranian woman whose death in police custody kicked off the uprising. And now, on top of weeks already spent in the notorious Evin prison, the two face espionage charges that carry the death penalty.

The allegations are ridiculous, but gravely serious — a threat that portends only greater repression of the country’s beleaguered press and civil society. It’s imperative that the United States and other democratic powers reaffirm Iranians’ rights to assembly, dissent and independent media.

Global support is extra critical now, as the protests show no signs of abating. Demonstrations, in fact, intensified after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ threat that continued unrest would provoke even harsher crackdowns. The accusations against Hamedi and Mohammadi are likely just the start of the regime’s attempt to make examples of players in the protest movement.

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Hamedi, who writes for the reformist daily newspaper Shargh, was the first journalist to report that Amini was on life support in a Tehran hospital. She captured now-iconic images of Amini in a coma and of her parents embracing in the hospital halls. Mohammadi reported on Amini’s funeral in Kurdistan province.

Both women were doing their jobs transparently and with government permission. Encouragingly, other Iranian journalists are speaking up in the women’s defense. What the intelligence services “have referred to as evidence for their charges is the exact definition of journalists’ professional duty,” the Journalist Association of Iran said Saturday in response to the authorities’ allegations.

Clearly, the regime is rattled. The charges — which come jointly from two elements of the intelligence community that have often been bitter rivals — are intended to show that the regime is closing ranks, not coming apart at the seams. And their focus on foreign powers is familiar; the regime has always blamed outsiders for its problems. But the protests’ longevity shows that Iranians no longer quietly accept the regime’s lies and excuses.

That won’t stop the regime from going all in on artifice, though. There’s a good chance Hamedi and Mohammadi end up facing a televised show trial such as the ones that followed the 2009 election and other earlier uprisings.

Meanwhile, other trials of protesters have begun, many for capital charges. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the arrests of 51 journalists, but it and other press freedom watchdogs acknowledge the number is likely much higher.

So far, President Biden is saying the right things, but he now needs to take a clearer stance in demanding the safety of these journalists and other members of Iranian civil society: He should make the execution of a single protester a red line that, if crossed, would put an end to any renewed negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Additionally, there are two things the Biden administration must not do. The first is succumb to the notion that proactive support for the movement in Iran will somehow worsen crackdowns on protesters. No matter what Biden does or doesn’t do, the regime will repress its dissenters, and its propaganda machine will attempt to divert responsibility for Iran’s myriad problems onto foreign adversaries. So the more vocal the United States’ support for Iran’s protesters, the better.

Second, the administration can’t ignore that disinformation is coming from actors opposed to the regime, too. The falsehoods propping the regime up are plenty matched by disinformation emanating from the corners of the Iranian diaspora that are meant to tear the regime down, but only in the ways they deem acceptable. The United States must be diligent in identifying honest diaspora partners — of which there are plenty.

Known disseminators of disinformation, though, should receive no U.S. money for Iranian democracy initiatives, nor should they be engaged as reliable brokers. That’s the only way to help incubate an Iranian civil society that will succeed in the long run.

As for the short run, Hamedi and Mohammadi need international attention and support right now. They have been in solitary confinement for over a month and are facing the full weight of Iran’s state just for daring to report on a tragic abuse of power by authorities and its aftermath.

Standing up for them, for the other persecuted journalists and for, as ever, all the people still protesting means standing up for a strong civil society in Iran — one that has the potential to outlast the regime.