Documentary Filmmakers, the Latest Targets of the Government’s Crackdown on Free Expression

BBC Persian Director Says Filmmakers Not Associated with Network

(19 September 2011) Iranian authorities should end the ongoing intimidation and arrest of filmmakers and journalists accelerated by the recent detention of six documentary filmmakers, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said today. Diplomats meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his current visit to New York should challenge him on widespread government attacks on free expression, added the Campaign.

“These arrests prove yet again that President Ahmadinejad and his intelligence apparatus have no tolerance for independent filmmakers and journalists,” said Aaron Rhodes, a spokesperson for the Campaign. “If the President expects the international community to respect his right to speak in New York, then he should be forced to explain why filmmakers and media are subject to repression in Iran.”

On 17 September 2011 Iranian authorities detained six independent documentary filmmakers. According to Campaign sources the filmmakers include Mohsen Shahrnazdar, Hadi Afarideh, Katayoun Shahabi, Naser Safarian, Shahnam Bazdar and Mojtaba Mir Tahmaseb. A pro-government news agency, Young Journalist Club, accused the detained filmmakers of working for BBC Persian and engaging in espionage on behalf of the news service. Several sources reported that the detainees have been taken to Ward 240 of Evin Prison, which is under the control of the Ministry of Intelligence.

“BBC Persian has no one working for it inside of Iran, officially or unofficially,” Sadeq Saba, director of BBC Persian, told the Campaign. “If these people are detained under charges of cooperation with BBC Persian, since we have no one working for us in Iran, then they are victims of policies directed at pressuring BBC Persian. I am truly sorry for the detainees, their families, and their associates.”

The arrest of the six filmmakers came within a day of BBC Persian’s broadcast of a documentary about Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Two days prior to BCC’s scheduled airing of the documentary, the Young Journalist Club quoted an “informed source” who said a “network” of filmmakers supplying information to BCC had been identified and that “necessary actions will be taken to deal with them.”

An Iranian documentary filmmaker who personally knows four of the six detainees told the Campaign: “I know these people closely and I know that none of them works for BBC and none of them produced works of a political nature.” He said that in the past, Ministry of Intelligence agents had briefly detained or interrogated three of the filmmakers and told them that they should not work with BBC Persian.

“Since the launch of BBC Persian, many independent documentary filmmakers have been interrogated and threatened by security forces,” said the filmmaker. “Even some documentary filmmakers who try to get filming permits have been told by officials that their work cannot be broadcasted on BBC Persian.”

In a statement published on 19 September 2011, BBC stressed, “the six filmmakers currently detained in Iran are not BBC staffers. The individuals in question are independent documentary filmmakers whose films have been screened in festivals and other venues internationally. As is common practice for the channel’s documentary showcase program, BBC Persian television bought the rights to broadcast these films.”

Liliane Landor of BBC’s Global News said, “We consider this to be part of ongoing efforts by the Iranian government to put pressure on the BBC for the impartial and balanced coverage of its Persian-language TV of events in Iran and the wider region.”

BBC Persian’s television service has been subject to extensive jamming of its satellite broadcast from within Iran. BBC reported that the jamming “intensified on the evening of Saturday 17 September just as the channel had begun broadcasting a documentary about Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.”

Saturday’s arrests are part of an ongoing attack by authorities on media, journalists and filmmakers in Iran. On 10 July 2011, Pegah Ahangarani, a popular actress and young filmmaker was arrested when she was allegedly planning to cover the Women’s World Cup in Germany for Deutsche Welle. On 26 June 2011, security forces arrested filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi. Prior to these arrests, in March 2010 prominent filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof were arrested when working on a movie about the post-election unrest. They were later sentenced to 6 years in prison.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad is currently in New York to take part in the 66th session of the UN General Assembly. During his past visits, in addition to taking part in the opening session of the General Assembly, Ahmadinejad has taken the opportunity to meet with international journalists and diplomats, dine with select groups of New Yorkers, and give public addresses.

On multiple occasions Ahmadinejad has defended Iran’s human rights record to international journalists, saying Iran has “the highest conceivable degree of freedom,” and “in Iran, expressing one’s point of view is permissible and free.”

“What Ahmadinejad portrays of Iran’s freedom of expression during his international visits is in complete contrast to the facts on the ground,” said Rhodes. “In reality Iranian authorities do all they can to restrict access to free information by their citizens. With Ahmadinejad in New York diplomats and journalists should hold him accountable for his government’s hypocritical repression of free expression and free media.”