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Iranian journalists won an international prize amid shrinking press freedom in the country


Protests and labor strikes continue in Iran following the September death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, while in custody of the country's morality police. But the news that is reported out of Iran comes at a heavy price to journalists there, who have been the target of major crackdowns, with at least 100 journalists being among the thousands of people arrested in recent months. Three of those journalists, Elaheh Mohammadi, Niloofar Hamedi and Narges Mohammadi, were honored last week with the UNESCO Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize in absentia, as they remain locked up in Iran's infamous Evin Prison. We're joined now by Yeganeh Rezaian, senior researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Welcome to the program.

YEGANEH REZAIAN: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So we should mention right at the top that you yourself were arrested in Iran along with your husband, Jason, and you were imprisoned for several months. Can you tell us a bit about how a journalist is treated there?

REZAIAN: Unfortunately, journalists - once they are arrested on anti-state or security charges, they immediately become political prisoners. That means they are not treated any better than any other political prisoners, especially notorious prisons like Evin. They are kept in very small cells, especially in solitary confinement - in some cases, no bathroom or immediate access to water, no window. The fluorescent light is on 24/7. Everyday condition is terrible, but also the mental pressure is very high because what the security forces do is to make sure they keep pressuring you. And that's their tactic to get you confess to everything you haven't done and basically make false confession that they can later use against you as evidence.

RASCOE: Your research shows that over half the journalists detained in Iran right now are women. And these are mainstream journalists who are covering stories that are assigned to them, right?

REZAIAN: Yes. So I have to mention that all media in Iran is state-run media. So the government has complete control over everything that gets produced as media content, whether for TV, state TV, or state newspapers or radio. And they get assigned by their editors to do these stories.

And that's why the charges that they later label these journalists with don't make sense and are absolute farce. Because once these journalists were assigned to go and cover such a story, they never thought that they're going to be charged with, let's say, espionage or spreading propaganda against the system.

RASCOE: The Committee to Protect Journalists listed Iran as the top jailer of journalists for 2022. How effective is this tactic in silencing the stories about what's unfolding in the country with people demanding more rights and government accountability?

REZAIAN: What I want to tell you is that our research shows the regime's tactics are not very successful anymore. And as much as they are still resorting to them, they are not effective anymore. Because we saw during these protests in the last six months, Iranian journalists not only kept covering whatever that was happening in the country and the realities on the ground very truthfully, they also continue to shed light on the arrest of their colleagues and reported those in their respective medias, despite all the limitations, but also used social media platforms to report on the arrested colleagues of them. Also, I want to tell you that once a big number of journalists were arrested, and there was this void of coverage in the state-run media, citizen journalists are the one who carried the torch and beautifully and bravely covered the protests and, again, the realities on the ground.

RASCOE: Do things like the UNESCO Prize do anything to help the cause of jailed journalists in a country like Iran?

REZAIAN: The concern about these recognitions is that at the same time that it may make them untouchable, and the regime knows that the world is watching how these journalists are being treated, at the same time it will make their imprisonment longer or with the higher costs. Particularly in the case of foreign journalists, that's when the government use them as bargaining chip. In the case of domestic journalists, that will make the regime to keep them for a longer time, to make sure the world forgets about them and their name's not being mentioned anywhere else.

RASCOE: That's Yeganeh Rezaian, senior researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thank you so much for joining us.

REZAIAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.