Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the penal code, “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 law also 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 bring ordinary citizens into adherence with the government’s moral code.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: Although the government issued a Citizen’s Rights Charter with protections for free expression that states, “no one can be persecuted merely for his or her beliefs” on December 19, the law continues to limit freedom of speech, including by members of the press. Authorities did not permit individuals to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the country’s judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions as well as those who publicly criticized the president, the cabinet, and the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament). The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security and insulting the regime based on letters, e‑mails, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.
According to AI retired university professor Mohammad Hossein Rafiee Fanood, who was in prison on charges of “spreading propaganda against the state,” and “membership in an illegal group” was briefly hospitalized in August and returned to prison before full recovery. He was released on medical furlough in September, and has been banned from political and journalistic activities for two years.
Former President Mohamed Khatami remained barred from giving public remarks, and the media remained banned from publishing his name or image.
Press and Media Freedoms: 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 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 by requiring foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limiting their ability to travel within the country, and forcing 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 the government agency, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens (especially in rural areas with limited internet access), reflected the government’s political and socio-religious ideology. Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations. There were reports of government “downlink” jamming of satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes faced fines up to 90 million rials ($2,800). Police launched campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout the country under warrants provided by the judiciary. According to media reporting, Basij militia destroyed 100,000 confiscated satellite dishes on July 24.
Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the audiovisual policy agency; a council composed of representatives of the president, the judiciary, and parliament oversees the agency’s activities. 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.
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. The government also harassed many journalists’ families. Reporters without Borders estimated that 19 journalists and 15 netizens remained in prison at year’s end. International NGOs reported that authorities forced several citizen journalists into internal exile during the year.
Journalist Reyhaneh Tabatabaee began serving a one-year sentence on January 12 on charges of “propaganda against the regime” and was barred from using social media for two years. She was granted a four-day furlough on June 17.
There were updates in the cases of Issa Saharkhiz, Ehsan Mazandarani, Afarin Chitsaz, and Saman Safarzaie, arrested in 2015 on charges of membership in “an infiltration group connected to the United States and United Kingdom.” Saharkhiz was sentenced to three years in prison on August 8 for “insulting the supreme leader” and “propagating against the state,” and spent time in solitary confinement. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Prison Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Saharkhiz be released on medical grounds, but he remained in prison. According to reports on October 9, he has been on several hunger strikes. According to ICHRI Mazandarani was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, reduced to five years by the appeals court. He was temporarily released for medical treatment in October after suffering a heart attack while on hunger strike. Human Rights Watch reported that Chitsaz was sentenced to 10 years in prison on April 25 on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” and “contact with foreign governments.” The appeal court reduced her sentence to two years and a two-year ban from practicing journalism. She received a medical furlough for knee surgery in August. Safarzaie received a five-year imprisonment sentence in April for “assembly and collusion against national security.” Tehran’s appeals court reduced his sentence to two years in August, and according to ICHRI, as of November, he could be eligible for conditional release for lack of prior record and time already served in prison.
Cartoonist Atena Farghadani, imprisoned in 2014 for “spreading propaganda,” “insulting members of parliament,” and “insulting the supreme leader, was released on May 3 after an appeals court reduced her 12-year sentence to 18 months.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law forbids government censorship but also prohibits dissemination of information the government considers “damaging.” During the year the government censored publications–both reformist and conservative–that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees.
Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship. 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 closure, suspension, and fines. According to the IHRDC, 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 media reporting, the Press Supervisory Board temporarily revoked the publishing license of Yalasarat al-Hosein weekly paper in January for an article deemed insulting to the Vice President for Family and Women’s Affairs, Shahindokht Mowlaverdi, and again in July for “offensive” comments about the spouses of prominent artists at an annual Television and Cinema awards ceremony in Tehran.
The Tehran Public and Revolutionary Prosecutor’s office banned the daily Qanun newspaper on June 20 after the IRGC Intelligence Organization brought a case of “defamation” against Qanun for a June 11 article, “Damned 24 Hours,” detailing the treatment of detainees in an unspecified Tehran prison. According to media reporting, the paper resumed publication on October 22 and was acquitted of the charges of “insulting religious sanctities” but found guilty of “publishing falsehoods.”
Libel/Slander Laws: The government commonly used libel 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. According to the new crimes bill passed this year, “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they are on Iranian soil, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to reform but not undermine the government are considered a 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 internet platforms that criticized the government, to arrest, prosecute, and sentence individuals for crimes against national security.
Although Twitter is officially banned in the country, the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and various other government-associated officials and entities.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, monitored private online communications, and censored online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online. The Ministries of Culture, Information, and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems in the country. The office of the supreme leader also houses a Supreme Council on 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.
According to the Ministry of Culture, 70 percent of Iranian youth between the ages of 15 and 29 used the internet. NGOs reported the government continued to filter content on the internet to ban access to particular sites and to filter traffic based on its content. The computer crimes law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, but the law is not clear whether the use of such tools is illegal, according to internet activists.
The ministry must approve all internet service providers. The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that comprise the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites, the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These include the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the MOIS, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Local media reported on the launch of Iran’s “National Information Network,” on August 14 to provide a “faster, more secure” service. Internet activists reported many individuals were unable to access Facebook and several other social media outlets, even when using various circumvention tools, after the program was launched. RWB reported that this National Information Network is intended to act like an “intranet,” system, with full content control and user identification. Authorities can disconnect this network from World Wide Web content and reportedly will use it to provide government propaganda while blocking access to independently reported news or freely gathered information.
The same law that applies to traditional media applies to electronic media, and the Press Supervisory Board and judiciary invoked the law to close websites during the year. Six media outlets–Borna, Mawj, Bahar, Puyesh, Persian Khodro, 9 Sobh, and Memari–were blocked and/or reprimanded in September for reporting on corruption scandals in several Tehran property developments. They received official reprimands for violating the cybercrimes law, according to local media reports.
Authorities continue to block online messaging tools such as Facebook and Twitter. The IRGC Center for Combating Organized Crime website reported on August 23 that IRGC forces had summoned, detained, and warned some 450 administrators of social media groups over “immoral” content.
An estimated 20 million Iranians use the online messaging application Telegram, which has security features that make the content of users’ communications more difficult to be read by a third party. CPJ nevertheless reported in June that users were at risk of being monitored, as had happened with other similar applications in the past. Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace announced on May 29 that Telegram had one year to move all of its data to servers inside Iran or risk being closed entirely. Telegram users in Iran continued to be harassed for content posted through its servers. According to local media reports, the Iranian Cyber Police arrested three Telegram channels administrators on August 9 for publishing material “insulting religious sanctities.”
Government organizations, including the Basij “Cyber Council,” the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyber threats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on social networking websites officially banned by the Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems. Radio Zamaneh reported on April 21 that hackers who may have been associated with governmental security offices hacked Vice President Shahindokht Mowlaverdi’s private e‑mail account and sent spearfishing e‑mails to her contacts.
International media reported that Iranian national soccer team player, Sosha Makani, was suspended from the league in June for “inappropriate conduct” after photos emerged online of him wearing yellow “SpongeBob” pants.
Eight online models were arrested, and an unannounced number of online Instagram, Telegram, and Facebook pages were closed in May for “immoral content” after images were posted that did not adhere to government-sanctioned dress requirements. The Tehran Prosecutor General announced the arrests were part of operations “Spider I” and “Spider II,” which sought to identify illicit modeling activity online.
Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access. The government periodically reduced internet speed to discourage downloading material; however, in general there were slight improvements to speed as the government expanded access to 3G services for mobile devices.
According to the UN special rapporteur’s reports, serious difficulties persisted, including severe content restrictions, intimidation and prosecution of users, and limitations on access through the intentional slowing of service and filtering. The most heavily blocked websites were in the arts, society, politics, and news categories. RWB reported there were more than 800 cases of censorship since the start of the year.
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 prohibiting 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 pursued education through the unrecognized online university of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) (see International Religious Freedom Report).
The government maintained controls on cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits, and censored those deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored or banned films deemed to promote secularism, non-Islamic ideas about 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 made up of clerics, former directors, former parliamentarians, and academics, must approve the content of every film before production and again before screening. Films can also be arbitrarily barred from the screen even if all the appropriate permits were received in advance.
According to the IHRDC, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati pulled the film Fifty Kilos of Sour Cherries from theaters after its initial screening in Tehran, for promoting the “disintegration and demise of the family and providing an inappropriate example through the actress’s makeup.”
The ministry’s Film Evaluation and Supervision Department banned five filmmakers–Mostafa Kiyai, Alireza Sartipi, Abdollah Alikhani, Sayyed Amir Parvin-Hoseini, and Reza Mirkarmi–and three film companies–Filmiran, Nur-e Taban, and Puya Film–in August from receiving permits or services in response to allegations they had advertised on foreign-based Persian-language satellite TV channels and “hostile networks run by the enemies of the Islamic Republic.”
Filmmaker Kayvan Karimi, initially sentenced in 2015 to six years in prison for “insulting the sanctities” in his documentary film on political graffiti, had his sentence reduced to one year by an appeals court in February. He was also sentenced to 223 lashes for “having illegitimate relations” with a woman who is not a relative.” Authorities originally arrested Karimi on these charges in 2013. He began serving his sentence on November 23.
According to international media reports, authorities released filmmaker Mostafa Azizi in April; he had been sentenced in June 2015 to eight years in prison for “propaganda against the state,” “acting against national security in cyberspace,” and “insulting the supreme leader.”
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 a song’s lyrics, music, and album covers as complying with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission.
Mehdi Rajabian, Hossein Rajabian, and Yousef Emadi, originally arrested in 2013, were found guilty of “insulting Islamic sanctities,” “spreading propaganda against the system,” and “illegal audio-visual activities” in May for the distribution of unlicensed music. They were sentenced to three years’ detention and fined 200 million rials ($6,178). Authorities shut down their website, and AI reported the three were allegedly beaten and given electric shocks while in detention. According to ICHRI the two Rajabian brothers started hunger strikes on September 8 to protest their separation in different wards and lack of access to medical care for Mehdi Rajabian for symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
Rapper Amir “Tataloo” Hossein Maghsoodloo, was detained by police on August 23 in Tehran for “spreading depravity among youth.”
Authorities in several provinces cancelled concerts they deemed “inappropriate” throughout the year. Local authorities cancelled the concerts of singer Salar Aghili and musicians Shahram Nazeri and Kayvan Kalhor, despite having received the necessary prior permits from the Ministry of Culture. Prosecutor Gholamali Sadeghi of Khorasan Razavi Province announced in August that no more music concerts would be allowed to take place in the province.
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
The constitution permits assemblies and marches of unarmed persons “provided they do not violate the principles of Islam.” The government restricted this right and closely monitored gatherings such as public entertainment and lectures, student and women’s meetings and protests, meetings and worship services of minority religious groups, labor protests, online gatherings and networking, funeral processions, and Friday prayer gatherings to prevent anything it considered as antiregime. According to activists the government arbitrarily applied rules governing permits to assemble, with pro-regime groups rarely experiencing difficulty and groups viewed as critical of the regime experiencing harassment regardless of whether authorities issued a permit.
Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported on the October 30 arrest of organizers of a gathering celebrating the birth of Achaemenid King Cyrus the Great on October 28 in Fars province for “norm breaking and antivalues” slogans. ICHRI reported more than 70 individuals held since October were sentenced in December to serve between three months to eight years for participating in and organizing the event.
According to a report by ICHRI on December 2, security agents arrested Nasser Zarafshan, prominent human rights lawyer and several members of the Writers’ Association of Iran at a commemoration event for victims of the “chain murders” of dissidents in the 1990s.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for the establishment of political parties, professional and political associations, and Islamic and recognized religious minority organizations, as long as such groups do not violate the principles of freedom, sovereignty, national unity, or Islamic criteria; or question Islam as the basis of the country’s system of government. The government limited freedom of association through threats, intimidation, the imposition of arbitrary requirements on organizations, and the arrests of group leaders and members.
Teachers were barred from commemorating International Labor Day and Teachers’ Day, and several teachers’ union activists remained in prison, including Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi, Esmail Abdi, Mohammad Davari, Mohammad Reza Niknejad, Mehdi Bohlooli, and Mahmoud Bagheri. Esmail Abdi, the general secretary of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association, was charged with “propaganda against the Islamic system” and “conspiracy to disrupt the security of the country.” Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi, spokesperson of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association, was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of “colluding against national security” and “propaganda against the state.” Both Langroudi and Abdi, who reportedly did not have access to a lawyer, engaged in hunger strikes to protest prison conditions. Langroudi was released on a temporary medical furlough on May 11 after complications arose from his strike, according to ICHRI. Abdi was also released on bail. Both were ordered back to prison in October after a Tehran Appeals Court upheld their six-year prison sentences.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government restricted these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with regard to refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq.
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. Refugees faced restrictions on in-country movement and faced restrictions or bars from entering 28 provinces according to UNHCR.
Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for foreign travel for all citizens. Citizens who were educated at government expense or received scholarships had to either 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. Several 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.
Exile: The law does not provide for forced exile abroad. Many citizens practiced self-imposed exile to express their beliefs freely or escape government harassment.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
The government had a mixed record in providing support for refugees, mostly from Afghanistan and some from Iraq. The government is responsible for refugee registration and status determination and has granted registration to 960,000 Afghan and 28,000 Iraqi refugees under a system known as “Amayesh,” through which authorities provide refugees with cards identifying them as legally registered refugees. The cards enable refugees to access basic services, and facilitate the issuance of work permits to refugees. Additionally, approximately 1.4 million “non-refugee” Afghans held visas under a Joint Action Plan for formerly undocumented Afghans. A large number of undocumented Afghans lived in the country and were unable to register as official refugees or visa holders. During a visit to Tehran in April, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner George Okoth-Obbo stated the number of unregistered Afghans was about three million.
Supreme Leader Khamenei stated on November 22 “Iran has for years hosted three million Afghans, and has provided them with the conditions to study and live in Iran, and has, with complete tolerance, adopted a humane attitude towards migrants.” The HRW reported that the government continued its mistreatment of Afghans in the country, including deportations, physical abuse by security forces, and restricted access to education or jobs.
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 continued to block many Afghans from registering to obtain refugee status. Afghans not currently registered under the Amayesh system that had migrated to Iran in the past decades of conflict in their home country continued to be denied asylum or access to register with the United Nations as refugees for resettlement. NGOs reported many of these displaced asylum seekers felt 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 Afghan refugees and sometimes threatened them with refoulement. According to a HRW report, government military recruiters threatened unregistered Afghan refugees with deportation or barred them from registering as refugees if they did not join military forces when asked to do so.
Employment: Only refugees with government-issued work permits as part of the Amayesh system were able to work. NGO sources reported that cards were difficult to renew and were often prohibitively expensive for refugees to maintain due to steep annual renewal fees.
Access to Basic Services: Amayesh cardholders have access to primary education and received primary health care, including vaccinations, prenatal care, maternal and child health, and family planning from the Ministry of Health. Under a 2015 agreement, they also had access to the Salamat Insurance Program and benefit from a health insurance package for hospitalization similar to Iranian nationals, and those with qualifying “special diseases” got comprehensive coverage. The supreme leader announced in 2015 that all Afghans, regardless of status, should have access to school. According to UNHCR’s website, more than 350,000 Afghan and Iraqi students (both registered and unregistered) were enrolled in the 2015-2016 academic year. According to media reporting on schools for Afghan children, however, Afghans continued to have difficulty gaining access to education. The government also sometimes imposed fees for children of registered refugees to attend public schools or required unregistered children to have legal immigration status.
There were barriers to marriage between citizens and displaced Afghans. Authorities require Afghans to obtain documentation from their embassy or government offices in Afghanistan to register their marriage in the country, according to media reporting. The Family Protection Law states, “any foreigner who marries an Iranian woman without the permission of the Iranian government will be sentenced to two to five years in prison plus a cash penalty.” Furthermore, authorities only considered the children born from such unions eligible for citizenship if the child’s father is a citizen and registers the child as his, leaving many children stateless.
Most provinces’ residency limitations on refugees effectively denied them access to public services, such as public housing, in the restricted areas of those provinces.
Due to documentation restraints, there are no accurate numbers on how many stateless persons reside in the country. Stateless persons include those without birth documents or refugee identification cards. They are subjected to inconsistent government policies and rely on charities, principally domestic, to provide medical care and schooling. Authorities prohibited stateless persons from receiving formal government support or travel documents.
Women may not directly transmit citizenship to their children or to noncitizen spouses. Under a 2006 amendment to the Nationality Law, only children born to Iranian mothers and non-Iranian fathers who reside in Iran for 18 years and whose parent’s marriage is officially registered with the government are eligible to apply for citizenship. According to media reports, between 400,000 and one million persons lacked Iranian nationality despite having an Iranian citizen mother due to limitations on citizenship transmission.