Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the law, “anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”
The nonbinding Citizens’ Rights Charter acknowledges the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression. The charter grants citizens the right to seek, receive, publish, and communicate views and information, using any means of communication; however, it has not been implemented.
Freedom of Expression: The law provides for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state or national security or “insulting” Islam. The government severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights problems, as well as to compel ordinary citizens to comply with the government’s moral code.
According to NGO reports, in February then president Rouhani signed additional provisions to Articles 499 and 500 of the penal code that could further restrict freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief and disproportionately impact members of religious and ethnic minority groups. According to the NGO Article 19, Article 499 bis prescribes a prison sentence or fine for “anyone who insults Iranian ethnicities, divine religions, or Islamic schools of thought recognized under the Constitution with the intent to cause violence or tensions in the society or with the knowledge that such [consequences] will follow.” Article 500 bis prescribes a prison sentence or fine for anyone who commits “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.” Authorities did not permit individuals to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions, as well as those who publicly criticized the president, cabinet, and parliament. In July UNSR Rehman expressed “deep concern” regarding authorities’ continued targeting of individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression, including journalists, media workers, writers, and cultural workers. The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security and for insulting the regime, citing as evidence letters, emails, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened individuals with arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.
Several activists who signed letters calling on the supreme leader to step down in 2019 remained in prison during the year on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.”
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The government’s Press Supervisory Board issues press licenses, which it sometimes revoked in response to articles critical of the government or the regime, or did not renew for individuals facing criminal charges or who were incarcerated for political reasons. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country. The ministry required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limited their ability to travel within the country, and forced them to work with a local “minder.”
Under the constitution, private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), a government agency. Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens, particularly in rural areas with limited internet access, reflected the government’s political and socioreligious ideology. The government jammed satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country, a continuous practice since at least 2003. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes faced fines. Police, using warrants provided by the judiciary, conducted periodic campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout the country.
Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the Audiovisual Policy Agency, a council composed of representatives of the president, judiciary, and parliament. Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations.
Violence and Harassment: The government and its agents harassed, detained, abused, and prosecuted publishers, editors, and journalists, including those involved in internet-based media, for their reporting on issues considered sensitive by the government. The government also harassed many journalists’ families (see section 1.e., Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion). According to information provided by Journalism is not a Crime, an organization devoted to documenting freedom of the press in the country, at least 99 journalists or citizen-journalists were imprisoned as of November, a significant increase from 2020.
According to the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists, in late January security forces arrested the editor of the Kurdish-focused news outlet Aigrin Roj Weekly, Mahmoud Mahmoudi, in Sandaj and transferred him to an unknown location. Mahmoudi had signed an open letter in late January protesting the mass arrest of civil, student, and environmental activists in Kurdistan Province. According to the same article, on June 20, the editor in chief of the Tehran-based Nour-e Azadi magazine, Reza Taleshian Jelodarzadeh, posted on his social media accounts that he had been arrested and was being transferred to Greater Tehran Penitentiary to serve a three-year sentence. In 2019 Jelodarzadeh was charged with “disturbing public opinion” and “spreading antiestablishment propaganda” for his posts on social media.
On February 7, RSF reported that freelance journalist Fariborz Kalantari was sentenced to three years in prison and 74 lashes for using his Telegram channel to circulate articles about corruption charges brought against former vice president Eshaq Djahangiri’s brother, Mehdi Djahangiri.
On February 17, authorities arrested photojournalist Noushin Jafari in her Tehran home and took her to Qarchak Prison to begin serving a five-year prison sentence she received in 2019, on charges of “insult(ing) Islam’s sacred values” on her social media account.
RSF also reported that in March photojournalist and women’s rights activist Raha Askarizadeh was summoned to serve a two-year prison sentence and was banned from leaving the country for two years for her social media activity. Arrested in December 2019, she had been released on bail a month later pending trial.
According to Journalism is not a Crime, in September intelligence agents in the city of Paveh in Kermanshah Province detained two local journalists for publishing on local Telegram channels a story of the rape of a seven-year-old girl (see section 6, Child Abuse).
As of year’s end, poet, author, and activist Baktash Abtin had been being placed into a medically induced coma to treat his severe COVID-19 symptoms after months of medical neglect in Evin Prison. Another fellow author and member of the Iranian Writers Association Board, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, was also transferred from Evin Prison to a hospital in December for COVID-19 treatment. The 73-year-old editor of the monthly political magazine Iran-e-Farda, Keyvan Samimi Behbahani, and another author Keyvan Bajan, remained in prison at year’s end.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law forbids government censorship but also prohibits dissemination of information the government considers “damaging.” The Ministry of Culture reviews all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release and may deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require word substitutions for terms deemed inappropriate.
During the year the government censored publications that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) determined the main topics and types of news to be covered and distributed topics required for reporting directly to various media outlets, according to the IHRDC. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees. Authorities also banned national and international media outlets from covering demonstrations in an attempt to censor information about protests and intimidate citizens from disseminating information about them. As noted above, officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship through arrests and imprisonments. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board, which regulates media content and publication, referred such complaints to the Press Court for further action, including possible closure, suspension, and fines. According to RSF, judicial offices or Ministry of Intelligence officers summoned at least 42 journalists due to their news coverage in the period preceding the presidential election in June. Government authorities issued a range of prohibitions to journalists, including making “negative or critical comments about the election” and criticizing then candidate Ebrahim Raisi.
On July 13, reformist newspaper Etemad fired three of its political correspondents. While some commentators suggested the terminations were politically motivated, the newspaper did not offer any public explanation for the firings. On September 7, IRIB news presenter Hamid Arun announced via Twitter that he had been notified by his employer of his termination after he tweeted his disappointment at the sacking of a distinguished professor of philosophy, Bijan Abdolkarimi, from Islamic Azad University.
According to Freedom House, during the November 2019 protests and subsequent internet shutdown, journalists and media were issued official guidelines from the Ministries of Intelligence and of Culture and Islamic Guidance on how to cover the protests. The ministries threatened journalists with criminal prosecution if they strayed from official guidance, which instructed that the protests not be made into “headline news” and should instead be portrayed as civil protests while minimizing the extent of violence.
As the outbreak of COVID-19 escalated, the head of the Cyber Police, Commander Vahid Majid, announced the establishment of a working group for “combatting online rumors” relating to the spread of the virus. In April 2020 a military spokesman stated authorities had arrested 3,600 individuals for spreading COVID-19 “rumors” online, with no clear guidance on what authorities considered a “rumor.”
Libel/Slander Laws: The government commonly used libel and slander laws or cited national security to suppress criticism. According to the law, if any publication contains personal insults, libel, false statements, or criticism, the insulted individual has the right to respond in the publication within one month. By law “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they are in the country, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to alter but not overthrow the government, are considered political crimes and subject to certain trial and detention procedures (see section 1.e.). The government applied the law throughout the year, often citing statements made in various media outlets or on internet platforms that criticized the government in the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of individuals for crimes against national security.
According to the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists, citing IranWire and Tasnim News Agency, on July 5, Judge Abbas Shaghaghi of Branch 6 of Tehran’s Media Court convicted Mizenaft managing director Hamid Hajipour, Naftema managing director Mehdi Ghadiri, and two others from Etelaterooz whose names were not released, after the three media outlets published stories on alleged corruption by Kamran Mehravar, a director at the Ministry of Oil. Mehravar reportedly filed a lawsuit against the three websites, all of which covered energy news. As of November there was no indication the court had sentenced the journalists; keeping open files is a tactic the government used to intimidate journalists.
National Security: As noted above, authorities routinely cited laws on protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or to deter criticism of government policies or officials.
On June 17, authorities arrested poet and civil society activist Aram Fathi in a crackdown against dissidents initiated in connection with the presidential election. Fathi was charged with “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the regime with the intention of disrupting the elections.” According to family members, intelligence officers tortured Fathi with an electric shock device and punched and kicked him to extract a confession during his 11-day detention in Marivan. On July 28, he was released on bail, and as of September 9, he was waiting to appear before the revolutionary court in Marivan, according to Journalism is Not a Crime.
The Ministries of Culture and of Information and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems, and they maintain monopoly control over internet traffic flowing into, in and out of the country. The Office of the Supreme Leader includes the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.
The law makes it illegal to use virtual private networks and distribute circumvention tools, and former minister of information and communications technology Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi was quoted in the press stating that using circumvention tools was illegal.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all internet service providers (ISPs). The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that compose the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (also referred to as the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites or Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content), the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These agencies include the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, Ministry of Intelligence, and Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.
The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the global internet, including fully blocking access in Khuzestan for almost two weeks during protests that initially broke out over water shortages in July, and for almost one week during nationwide protests in November 2019. Social media users reported internet outages across the country throughout the water shortage protests in July, which the independent internet watchdog NetBlocks corroborated and described as “consistent with a regional internet shutdown intended to control protests.”
Authorities blocked access to independent news sites and several social media and communication platforms deemed critical of the state and continued to monitor private online communications and censor online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.
According to Freedom House, authorities employed a centralized filtering system that can effectively block a website within a few hours across the entire network. Private ISPs were forced either to use the bandwidth provided by the government or route traffic containing site-visit requests through government-issued filtering boxes developed by software companies within the country.
The government continued to implement the National Information Network (NIN, also known as SHOMA). As described by Freedom House, NIN enabled the government to reduce foreign internet connection speeds during politically sensitive periods, disconnect the national network from global internet content, and disrupt circumvention tools. According to Freedom House, several domestically hosted websites such as national online banking services, domestic messaging applications, and hospital networks remained online using the NIN infrastructure while global traffic was disconnected during the November 2019 protests.
Authorities restricted access to tens of thousands of websites, particularly those of international news and information services, the political opposition, ethnic and religious minority groups, and human rights organizations. They continued to block online messaging tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, although the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Raisi, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, and other government-associated officials and entities, including after shutting down most of the country’s internet access during both the November 2019 protests and the July water shortage demonstrations. According to Freedom House, websites were blocked if they contradicted state doctrine regarding Islam, as well as government narratives on domestic or international politics. News stories that covered friction among political institutions were also frequently censored.
Government organizations, including the Basij Cyber Council, Cyber Police, and Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyberthreats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and they reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems online.
The popular messaging application Telegram remained blocked during the year, although it continued to be accessed using circumvention tools.
In October a cyberattack against the Oil Ministry computer system blocked motorists’ ability to use their specialized smart cards to purchase subsidized fuel at 4,300 gas stations for several days. No group claimed responsibility for the attack; however, multiple officials blamed anti-Iranian forces from “abroad” for carrying it out.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government significantly restricted academic freedom and the independence of higher education institutions. Authorities systematically targeted university campuses to suppress social and political activism by banning independent student organizations, imprisoning student activists, removing faculty, preventing students from enrolling or continuing their education because of their political or religious affiliation or activism, and restricting social sciences and humanities curricula.
Authorities barred Baha’i students from higher education and harassed those who studied through the unrecognized online university of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. According to the Baha’i International Community, on March 17, authorities expelled two Baha’i students midsemester from the University of Applied Science and Technology in Shiraz. The university president reportedly showed the students a letter from the Ministry of Education that requested the expulsion of nine Baha’i students from the Universities of Applied Science and Technology across the country. Three other students were expelled from universities midsemester under similar circumstances.
The government maintained control over cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits and censored those productions deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored or banned films deemed to promote secularism and those containing what it deemed as non-Islamic ideas concerning women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcoholism.
According to the IHRDC, the nine-member film review council of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, consisting of clerics, former directors, former parliamentarians, and academics, must approve the content of every film before production and again before screening. Films may be barred arbitrarily from screening even if all the appropriate permits were received in advance.
In December 2020 film authorities sentenced director Reza Mihandoust to six years in prison for “membership in a group seeking to overthrow the government” and levied against him an additional six-month prison term for “spreading antigovernment propaganda.” According to a relative of Mihandoust, these charges were linked to a documentary he directed in 2009 about women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, as well as his participation in the nationwide protests in November 2019. Despite being on temporary release, Mihandoust was reportedly unable to find work due to the national security charges he faces.
Officials continued to discourage teaching music in schools. Authorities considered heavy metal and foreign music religiously offensive, and police continued to repress underground concerts and arrest musicians and music distributors. The Ministry of Culture must officially approve song lyrics, music, and album covers to ensure they comply with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission.
In September musician Mehdi Rajabian told BBC News he was prepared to face prison for releasing a new album he recorded “undercover in his basement” that included songs inspired by his abuse in Evin Prison, as well including female singers, despite the ban on them. Rajabian was previously arrested on “immorality” charges at least three times for his work but remained free as of December.
The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions, particularly concerning migrants and women.
In-country Movement: Judicial sentences sometimes included internal exile after release from prison, which prevented individuals from traveling to certain provinces. Women often required the supervision of a male guardian or chaperone to travel and faced official and societal harassment for traveling alone.
Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for foreign travel for all citizens. Citizens who were educated at government expense or received scholarships had either to repay the scholarship or receive a temporary permit to exit the country. The government restricted the foreign travel of some religious leaders, members of religious minorities, and scientists in sensitive fields.
Numerous journalists, academics, opposition politicians, human and women’s rights activists, and artists remained subject to foreign travel bans and had their passports confiscated during the year. Married women were not allowed to travel outside the country without prior permission from their husbands.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern. According to UNHCR, the government recognized 780,000 Afghans in the country under a system known as Amayesh, through which authorities provide refugees with cards identifying them as de facto refugees. The cards enable refugees to access basic services, facilitate the issuance of work permits, and serve as a safeguard against arrest and deportation. Amayesh cardholders must obtain permission for any travel outside their province of registration. In late July 2020 the Amayesh reregistration exercise started and expanded the eligibility criteria for Amayesh card renewal to include those who missed the four previous rounds. Undocumented spouses and family members of Amayesh cardholders were reportedly also able to enroll. NGO sources reported Amayesh cards, which are valid only for one year, were increasingly difficult to renew and prohibitively expensive for refugees to maintain, due to increased annual renewal fees. In addition to registered refugees, the government hosted approximately 586,000 Afghans who hold Afghan passports and Iranian visas and an estimated 2.6 million undocumented Afghans. The country also recognized 20,000 Iraqi refugees under a similar system known as Hoviat.
After the Taliban took control of the Afghan government in August, official border crossings between Afghanistan and Iran were closed on August 16 to persons without valid passports and Iranian visas, and the government does not allow the entry of undocumented persons. UNHCR issued a nonreturn advisory for Afghanistan on August 16 and continued to call on countries to keep their borders open to Afghans seeking international protection. Most Afghans fleeing to Iran entered irregularly through unofficial border crossings and with the help of smugglers. UNHCR reported an increase in the number of Afghans in need of international protection, and 27,816 newly arrived Afghans approached UNHCR offices in Iran in during the year. UNHCR believed the total number of new arrivals to be much higher. According to preliminary estimates by the government, up to 500,000 Afghans arrived during the year.
In August UNHCR expressed concern regarding an incident in which 200 Afghan refugees fled across the border from Nimruz Province into Iran over a single weekend. On August 9, semiofficial news agency Fars reported Iran’s refusal to hand over Afghan refugees to the Taliban following the group’s capture of the “Milak” border terminal in the Sistan and Baluchistan Province. According to Fars, Iran’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian and UN Special Envoy Jean Arnault met that same day, and Arnault reportedly praised Iran’s “constructive role” towards Afghanistan. At the end of a three-day visit to Iran in December, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urged the international community to scale up its support to the government and people of Iran, who were receiving Afghans fleeing a deteriorating situation in their country.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status to qualified applicants. While the government reportedly has a system for providing protection to refugees, UNHCR did not have information regarding how the country made asylum determinations. According to HRW the government blocked many Afghans from registering to obtain refugee status.
Afghans not registered under the Amayesh system who had migrated during past decades of conflict in their home country continued to be denied access to an asylum system or access to registering with UNHCR as refugees. NGOs reported many of these displaced asylum seekers believed they were pressured to leave the country but could not return to Afghanistan because of the security situation in their home provinces.
Refoulement: According to activist groups and NGOs, authorities routinely arrested Afghans without Amayesh cards and sometimes threatened them with deportation. From the beginning of the year to November 28, according to the International Organization for Migration, 1,150,842 undocumented Afghans returned to Afghanistan, with some claiming they were pressured to leave or left due to abuse by police or state authorities. As of December the government continued to return Afghans who were apprehended while trying to enter Iran, despite advocacy by UNHCR to provide asylum to those fleeing conflict. In December UNHCR estimated the government deported 65 percent of all newly arriving Afghan asylum seekers.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: HRW and other groups reported the government continued its mistreatment of many Afghans, including through physical abuse by security forces, deportations, forced recruitment to fight in Syria, detention in unsanitary and inhuman conditions, forced payment for transportation to and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, forced separation from families, restricted movement within the country, and restricted access to education or jobs.
In May 2020 Iranian border guards reportedly forced a group of 57 Afghan migrant workers they had detained entering the country into a fast-flowing river near Zulfiqar at gunpoint. According to a Reuters report sourced to Afghan lawmakers investigating the incident, at least 45 of the men drowned. There was no information regarding the status of a joint investigation into the incident by the Iranian and Afghan governments.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees faced certain restrictions on in-country movement and faced restrictions from entering certain provinces, according to UNHCR. They could apply for laissez-passer documents allowing them to move among those provinces where Afghans were permitted to travel.
Employment: Only refugees with government-issued work permits were able to work.
Access to Basic Services: Amayesh cardholders had access to education and health care, including vaccinations, prenatal care, maternal and child health care, and family planning from the Ministry of Health. All registered refugees may enroll in a basic health insurance package similar to the package afforded to citizens, which covered hospitalization and paraclinical services (medicine, doctor’s visits, radiology, etc.). During the year UNHCR covered the insurance premium for 120,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, including refugees who suffered from special diseases and their families. The remaining refugee population may enroll in health insurance by paying the premium themselves during four enrollment windows throughout the year.
The government claimed to grant Afghan children access to schools. During the 2020-21 academic year, more than 470,000 Afghan children were enrolled in primary and secondary schools, including 138,000 undocumented Afghan children. According to media reports, however, Afghans continued to have difficulty gaining access to education.
Most provinces’ residency limitations on refugees effectively denied them access to public services, such as public housing, in the restricted areas of those provinces.
There were no accurate numbers on how many stateless persons resided in the country. Persons without birth registration, identity documents, or refugee identification were at a heightened risk of statelessness. They were subjected to inconsistent government policies and relied on charities, principally domestic, to obtain medical care and schooling. Authorities did not issue formal government support or travel documents to stateless persons.
In November 2020 the government began implementing a law passed in 2019 granting Iranian citizenship to the children of Iranian women married to foreign men (see section 6, Children). Previously, female citizens married to foreign men were not able to transmit citizenship to their children, unlike male citizens, whose children and spouses receive citizenship automatically. As a result of this disparity, between 400,000 and one million children of the more than 150,000 Iranian women married to foreign men lacked Iranian nationality, according to media reports. Under the new law, the children of Iranian women and foreign men qualify for citizenship, although it is not automatic; the mother must apply for them. Children who turn 18 may apply for nationality themselves, even if their mother is deceased. Foreign men married to Iranian women may receive legal residency.
Human rights activists noted concern that the amended law requires the Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization to certify that no “security problem” exists before approving citizenship for these specific applications, and this vaguely defined security provision could be used arbitrarily to disqualify applicants if they or their parents are seen as critical of the government.