Beyond Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Freedom of speech in Iran

The past month has seen increased media focus on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian journalist who has been held in Iranian custody since April last year.

Boris’ ‘gaffe’?

The increased focus has largely been driven by comments by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson who, three weeks ago, told the Foreign Affairs Committee that that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been arrested in Iran for “simply teaching people journalism”.

This unsubstantiated statement –  contradicting her legal defence that she was in the country to visit her family – was subsequently cited by Iran as "proof" of her guilt and grounds for an additional five years to be added to her sentence. 

The Foreign Secretary endured significant criticism for this alleged ‘gaffe’ and was later forced to apologise. However, it should be noted that there are kernels of truth in the statements issued by Johnson’s defenders who have argued that the political anger directed at the Foreign Secretary distracts from the numerous human rights violations that the authoritarian Iranian regime has committed.

The Islamic Republic’s heinous treatment of journalists goes beyond Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliff and, until it became a more political story about the Foreign Secretary’s future, her case had attracted little media attention.

The British government and the Foreign Office must, of course, do their very best to reverse this human rights violation by Iran and secure Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. However, they must also do more to address the wider systemic issues pertaining to journalism and free speech in Iran.

Historical freedom of expression in Iran

Before the overthrowing of the Shah in 1979, Iran was a pro-Western authoritarian regime, lacking the theocratic limitations and repressions on freedom of expression which would characterise Iran after the Revolution. Yet, the Savak, the state secret police, was notorious for cracking down on critics of the regime.

Since the Revolution, Iran has turned towards religious fundamentalism and sought to enforce clauses in the regime-change constitution which lie at the root of the state’s violations against freedom of speech in recent decades. A report published last year by the independent human rights watchdog, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre (IHRDC), attributes the Islamic Republic’s repression of free speech to the vague clause in the constitution which forbids expression which constitutes “infringement of the basic tenets of Islam or public rights”.

In 1988 the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (SCCR) was established by Ayatollah Khomeni and has been responsible for enforcing limitations on published material. The President of Iran serves as the ex officio chairman of the Council.

Ten years later, the Iranian government shut down what TIME magazine called “the most remarkable newspaper to appear in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution”, ending its seventh-month life span and resulting in the imprisonment of the paper’s editor for “political dissent”.

Another notable incident occurred in 2006 when the reformist, Abbas Abdi, was imprisoned for publishing polling which showed that the Iranian public were supportive of relations with the United States. That same year, 17 students were prevented from completing university degrees due to their “political activism and beliefs”. 

Recent violations

In recent years, there have been hopes that Iran would move more towards liberal values and embrace principles of human rights. Following the election of the “moderate” candidate and current president Hassan Rouhani in 2013 there was jubilation amongst Iran’s liberal youth. Simultaneously, the P5+ nuclear deal was being pursued in the hope that the identified moderate camp would be strengthened, with President Obama calling on “the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations”.

Certainly, it is significant to note that, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent organisation that promotes press freedom around the world, the number of journalists behind bars at the end of 2016 stood at eight, a decrease from 19 in 2015, making it the first time in eight years that Iran was not among the world’s top five jailers of journalists.

However, the optimistic projections of a reformed Iran are yet to come to fruition. Indeed, the CPJ is among the 34 organisations who have called on the UN General Assembly to vote in favour of a proposed resolution on human rights which condemns Iran’s human rights violations.

The petition cites the assessment published by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran which criticises the various legislative measures and proposals of the regime such as the 2016 Political Crimes Bill which criminalises defamation against government officials, members of parliament and the judiciary as well as attempts to “reform State policies”.

Iran is also reprimanded in the Special Rapporteur for judicial decisions to hand out lashes to bloggers and journalists such as Mohammad Reza Fathi who published posts critical of city officials. In total the report notes that by the end of 2016, at least 24 journalists, bloggers and social media activists were either in detention or sentenced for peaceful activities

The independent watchdog for democratic political and civil rights, Freedom House, provides a similarly sobering assessment, awarding the Islamic Republic a score of just 17 out of 100 for its aggregate freedom provisions, drawing particular attention to the “restrictions on freedom of expression” and “arrests of journalists, bloggers, labor union activists, and dual nationals visiting the country, with some facing heavy prison sentences”. Likewise, Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed disappointment last year that President Rouhani has failed to live up to his campaign promises to respect civil and political rights, including but not limited to, those pertaining to freedom of expression.

Indeed, in addition to the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, HRW has sought to shed light on Iran’s treatment of journalists, recently condemning the detentions without formal charges of two Iranian journalists; Sasan Aghaei, the deputy editor of the reformist daily Etemad, and Yaghma Fashkhami, a journalist for the Didban Iran website.


The UK government has been under increasing pressure to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from unjustified imprisonment and Boris Johnson’s political future has been cast into doubt. Both situations are a direct result of the scrutiny and amplification of journalistic freedom. 

Freedom of expression is the first freedom from which all other civil and political liberties follow. There is perhaps no better way of ensuring that we never take this freedom for granted than by defending and fighting for it wherever it is threatened. Taking on Iran over free speech is both a worthy cause and a reminder of our hard-fought privileges and the price we would pay for giving them up.

Joel Collick is a research assistant at Bright Blue