Grace Toohey is currently based in Baton Rouge, working as a crime and criminal justice reporter for the largest newspaper in the state, The Advocate. She covers breaking news, investigates the criminal justice system, and monitors local law enforcement, in a state with the highest incarceration rate and a history of racial injustice. She previously spent the summer as a general assignment reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she co-authored a project on homicide solve rates in Chester, Pa. In May 2016, she graduated with honors from The University of Maryland-College Park with a double degree in Multi-platform Journalism and Government and Politics, and a minor in Spanish. Throughout college, she worked as a reporter at the university's independent student newspaper, The Diamondback. She also interned with McClatchy's Washington Bureau, covering national politics, Capital News Service, covering the Maryland legislative session, and The Frederick-News Post, covering local news in Frederick, Md.
Inside Ward 350 of Iran’s notorious Evin prison, two hours each Friday are reserved for Golgasht, a talent show. Among the performers playing musical instruments, sharing poems, celebrating birthdays and delivering political speeches, is Arvin Sedaghat Kish.
Kish is a fixture in the program, plucking the traditional setar, a Persian, gourd-shaped instrument, as background music for much of the show.
“All of the prisoners enjoyed that,” said journalist and fellow prisoner Siamak Ghaderi in an interview with Capital News Service. “He plays it professionally, perfectly.”
Before his arrest, Kish was a music critic. He also sometimes wrote about astronomy.
Kish often spent time teaching fellow inmates to play the setar, Ghaderi said. For the political prisoners, many of who endured torture, controversial trials and disputed sentencing processes, Golgasht and music can be a relief.
“It was very important, it was something relaxing,” said Ghaderi, who said he didn’t get to know Kish well because there were 20 others in the same cell, but his music was unforgettable.
“He is a calm soul, so accepting, very kind,” said Ghaderi, who was released in 2014 and now lives in the United States.
Arrest and Unrest
Following Iran’s disputed presidential election in 2009, when officials announced the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, protesters flooded the streets of Tehran. Kish was one of them. At their peak, almost three million people joined the rallies, calling for a fair democratic process and questioning the legitimacy of the election results.
The protesters, who were mainly non-violent, were met with tear gas, weapons and threats. Thousands of activists were beaten, hundreds arrested and dozens killed; within a year, the government had almost completely crushed the opposition.
Kish was one of the protesters the authorities used as an example to others, according to Journalism is Not a Crime, a London-based multimedia database of imprisoned Iranian journalists
On Dec. 7, 2009, Iranian authorities beat him in the street and threw him into the trunk of a car for his trip to jail.
A few days later, when media reported Kish’s arrest and mentioned his journalism profession, he was transferred to solitary confinement in Evin Prison, where he spent 60 days without explanation or charges, according to the organization.
He was subsequently charged with conspiracy – though it is unclear for what – and released on bail.
After seven months, Kish was brought to trial in the Revolutionary Court. He was denied a lawyer according to Journalism is Not a Crime. Kish admitted to participating in peaceful demonstrations. The judge sentenced him to three years in prison.
He began his sentence in September 2013 and is one of 48 journalists, bloggers or social medial activists in prison in 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. However, there is no indication that Kish has been released at time of publication, which is beyond his original sentence.
There are an estimated 500 political prisoners in Iran, according to the U.S. Department of State. Without accurate reports from Iran, there could be possibly more than 1,000.
Kish wrote for the monthly magazine, Farhang va Ahang, which means culture and song in Farsi. Over his career, he has authored hundreds of articles and critiques and one book, all focused about music.
In 2010, almost a year after Kish’s initial arrest, two of his colleagues, Behrang Tonekaboni and Kayvan Farzin, were arrested at the offices of Farhang va Ahang. Tonekaboni worked as the editor of the magazine and Farzin was also a music critic. They have since been released.
These three arrests were most likely linked to the trio’s political activism according to the human rights group Amnesty International.
Iranian journalists, however, are under particular surveillance, said a visiting professor at the University of Maryland’s Roshan Institute on Persian Studies, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of retaliation.
Iran’s Press Supervisory Board monitors all publications, said Dokhi Fassihian, senior program manager for Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House, in an interview with CNS. Although there is a vibrant press culture in Iran with much variety, every publication must obtain a government permit to publish, she said.
“But at any time if they publish something controversial or that they don’t like, the Minister of Culture can shut them down,” Shahin Milani, a legal analyst for the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, said in an interview with CNS.
As a result, many journalists practice self-censorship, he explained.
All journalists know the unwritten rules: do not mention the Supreme Leader or criticize the Islamic faith, said Mansoureh Farahani in an interview with CNS, the Persian editor of Journalism is Not a Crime.
Farahani worked for many years as a science writer in Iran. In that role, she learned to internalize the “red lines” that she couldn’t cross, she said, though they were never explicit.
Farahani was fired from her publication, which she said stemmed from government pressure. She left Iran for Britain because it was almost impossible to continue journalism and she didn’t want to take a public relations job like many of her former colleagues have, she said.
“It’s a very dangerous job to be a journalist in Iran because you could find yourself facing national security charges,” Milani said. “You might be able to say something one year, and two years later it might change, and you could find yourself in trouble.”
In 2015, Milani said he was working on a report on freedom of expression violations in Iran, which can have high consequences, he said. A sentence for a propaganda charge is usually one year in prison, while a national security charge would be five years.
Mohammad Manzarpour, executive editor of the Persian Service for the U.S.-run Voice of America, was jailed twice while working in Iran during his 15 years of reporting there.
“In terms of freedom of expression, working in Iran was not like working in North Korea,” Manzarpour said in an interview with CNS. “You learn to be conservative, you learn to be aware of the pitfalls and the places you should not step.”
Milani has been documenting the experiences of writers and artists in Iran. One author recounted a time his children’s book was rejected by the Ministry of Culture because there was an illustration of a chicken wearing a short skirt.
“It is an arbitrary process, you never know what’s going to happen,” Milani said.
Journalists, whether they are covering politics or music, are left alone to deal with these challenges, since Ahmadinejad’s administration banned the Association of Iranian Journalists. In 1997, it had about 4,000 members.
“One of the most important things to help journalists in Iran is an independent union,” Manzarpour said. “[There’s] no union, no regulation, no vetting; this creates both an internal crisis, a crisis of identity… they think they’re journalists but they don’t know the basis of journalists, which poisons the entire industry.”
Mixing music in Iran
Iran’s rich musical history is intertwined with changing interpretations of the Koran, said Farahani.
After the revolution, the new leadership banned all music, claiming accordance with Islamic law. Paying musicians and buying musical instruments became illegal; concerts venues and shows were shut down. Those laws have since been loosened, but musicians and bands still must seek approval from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for their lyrics and performances.
Women singing solo is still also not allowed, though many other forms of music have made a comeback since the late 70s. Rap music remains illegal.
Musicians face the same consequences as journalists if their lyrics, dance moves or messages conflict with the government’s or clerics’ interpretation of the Koran. Performing legally limits an artist’s creativity and use of Western music influences, which has created a robust underground music scene.
Being a music critic, like Kish, mixes two sensitive sectors, Farahani said.
“His field was music,” he said. “Music is another controversial [topic] in Iran.”
But in the eyes of Reza Vali, professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Music and Director of Education and Research for its Center for Iranian Music, music is a safe topic.
“Culture is separate from politics,” Vali said in an interview with CNS.
Though the government knows there are opportunities for political speech in music, they are more lenient, the UMD professor said.
“Even in the previous government, they wouldn’t take music or dance or theatre as mediums of political expression,” she said. “These are the aspects of culture that seem apolitical.”
But traditional Persian singer Ali, who asked that his last name to be withheld for his family’s safety, explained how musicians all know they cannot talk about the Supreme Leader, other religions, sexuality, sexual acts or criticize Islam or the government.
“They don’t give you too much freedom,” Ali said.
The government’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance monitors all forms of expression, censors music, books and other artistic avenues. It has authority to issue and revoke “the permission of cultural, press, news, art, cinema, audio-visual and publication and publicity institutions and organizations,” according to the government.
Artists, like journalists, have learned to navigate the red lines.
“Iranian artists are very politically active and they’ve learned how to work through these limitations,” said the UMD professor. “They resist and they’ve been resisting, and that’s one of the reasons the art scene is so alive.”
Iran: where religion rules
Following the revolution in 1979, modern Iran became a conservative culture governed by religious leaders. Rule of law is established by the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who ensures his interpretation of God’s will, is carried out in accordance with the Islamic faith.
The elected president’s will, coupled with the written Constitution, together guide norms and regulations.
When President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013, he was expected to bring a more moderate administration. But the stagnant, conservative religious leaders—who also appoint judges for the legal system—have left a divide in the government.
Human rights violations have become worse despite Rouhani’s campaign to support more freedoms, Elise Auerbach, an Iran Country specialist for Amnesty International, said in an interview with CNS,
“The hardliners want to spite Rouhani at every opportunity,” Auerbach said, citing harsher sentences, arrests, censorship and torture.
If writers’ and journalists’ words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public,” they can be sent to prison or sometimes sentenced to death, according to the State Department’s annual human rights report.
Private broadcasting is also illegal. This law allows the government to monopolize and censor television and radio, which is the primary source of information for most Iranians. Other forms of media are often published, but only about 33 percent of the 77 million citizens have access to Internet, and those who do are also subject to censoring and surveillance.
The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Iran as the seventh most censored nations in the world.
The government monitors social media activity, both on mobile phones and the Internet, Fassihian said.
To expand censorship, national security and Internet filtering, Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, created the Supreme Council of Cyberspace in March 2012. It is also tasked with developing a national Internet separate from global networks, according to the Iran Media Program.
Khameini also increased the Council’s authority over the Internet in September by eliminating all other state bodies involved in online policy. This move consolidates power into the hands of the hardline clerics and away from Rouhani’s more moderate administration.
Rouhani has supported some expansions of Internet access, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a non-profit based in New York supporting Iranian’s human rights. Iran is second behind China in number of blocked websites.
“In the long run it’s a losing battle for the Iranian government,” Fassihian said of Internet censorship. “They are now waging their war in trying to control the population.”
The government’s surveillance is extensive, including controlling Internet service providers, monitoring email content, chats and other conversations, according to a report from Reporters without Borders.
“The Iranian government keeps tabs on its people, they know everything about you,” Auerbach said.
Ward 350 of Evin prison housed more than 200 political prisoners at one point, but that number is slowly decreasing as many political dissents are reaching the end of their sentences, Ghaderi said.
Kish’s imprisonment began with 60 days in solitary confinement, one of the worst forms of torture, said Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who spent 107 days alone.
“I managed to have this internal universe, but other individuals might come out less unscathed than me,” Bahari said. “It was much easier to be with other prisoners…they can talk to each other, help each other, console each other.”
Abuses are regularly reported from Evin: lack of medical care, low nutritional value of food, random violence and beatings from prison guards.
Former prisoners often tell stories of “harsh interrogations, forced confessions, psychological torture, and physical torture, solitary confinement, and rape,” according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center’s report on prisons in Iran.
Day-to-day, Evin’s Ward 350 is kept clean and has good food, Bahari said. Ghaderi agreed; his months, excluding solitary confinement, were bearable, he said.
Except for April 28, 2014.
On that day officers stormed the ward early in the morning and began hitting prisoners with metal rods and yelling, according to a report of the event signed by Kish and 73 other eyewitnesses.
The beaten prisoners were visibly bleeding, blindfolded and handcuffed, then taken away, according to the document.
The 74 eyewitnesses called on authorities to do something with the medical examiners’ outcome, a report that documented abuse and misconduct on the authorities’ part from that day.
Kish signed on as the 49th eyewitness, said Ghaderi.
Human rights: a ‘top priority for the U.S.’
Shortly after the 1979 revolution, the United States broke diplomatic ties with Iran when 52 Americans from the U.S. embassy were held hostage for 444 days. In July, 2015, the U.S. signed a nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran, which could open a new relationship between the two nations. It includes limits on materials needed to create nuclear weapons and a pledge not to manufacture such weapons.
Nevertheless, “human rights is, and will remain a top priority for the U.S. government,” a State Department official wrote in an email to CNS. The nuclear deal “will not lessen either our public discourse on human rights or the pressure we bring on Iran to address the world’s concerns over its human rights abuses.”
Bahari said American pressure to release Iranian political prisoners, can have an impact. After then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for his release while he was in solitary confinement, the next day his interrogator called him “Mr. Hillary Clinton,” he said.
Bahari said he believes international pressure was key in his release.
“It is very important to talk about the people in jail,” Bahari said. “In terms of the human rights, they want US and the rest of the world to be quiet.”
“The Iranian government is definitely very sensitive to world opinion,” Auerbach said.
Journalists Trudge On
Though Kish and his fellow prisoners can no longer work for their publications, together they’ve found a way to continue their work.
Using their best handwriting, prisoners from around Ward 350 submit articles, opinion pieces and stories, which they compile into a single-copy “war newspaper.” It is posted on the notice board each week, Ghaderi said. Kish usually writes for the arts section, he said.
With a population of bored professors and journalists, the weekly newspapers often had more than 13 articles posted for readers, including the guards.
“The guards obviously were able to look at the newspaper and sometimes they controlled what they wrote,” Ghaderi said.
Ghaderi said this might be Kish’s last taste of journalism. He expects Kish won’t be able to continue writing upon his release, which was scheduled for September 2016.
“The person who has been a political prisoner, when he or she gets released, he is banned to do anything [practically],” Ghaderi said.
But perhaps Kish’s fate might be different.
“He has many talents,” Ghaderi said. “Someone like Arvin, there is a possibility to continue his life in some other field, [like] by teaching and playing instruments.”
Pressuncuffed.org seeks to encourage and promote rigorous student reporting, scholarly research and debate on the role of, and obstacles to, independent journalism in the United States and abroad. Our website features reporting by University of Maryland students about press freedom in the United States and abroad. It also offers resources to instructors elsewhere who may want to teach classes or hold workshops on this theme. In the near future, this site will become a place for student work from around the country and abroad.
Dana Priest, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner at The Washington Post and Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland.