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Golden Pen of Freedom goes to two journalists jailed in Iran

The 2023 Golden Pen of Freedom, the annual press freedom award of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), has been awarded to Elahe Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi, currently in jail in Iran

The Golden Pen of Freedom Award, made during the 2023 World News Media Congress  in Taipei, Taiwan, recognises the bravery and determination “of two courageous young women whose journalism kept sight of truth as the Iranian regime attempted to rewrite history.”

The death in custody in September 2022 of 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa “Jhina” Amini after being detained by Iran’s Morality Police following an attempt to enforce strict hijab rules, sparked a violent response by security forces as a wave of protest swept the country.

Separately, both Elahe Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi reported on the immediate aftermath of Amini’s detention and subsequent death, marking them as targets for the Iranian regime as it attempted to suppress the story and contain a growing nationwide uprising. 

30-year-old Niloofar Hamedi works for reformist daily newspaper Shargh and was arrested on 22nd September for breaking news about Mahsa Amini’s death and reporting on her treatment at the hands of the Morality Police. She published photos of Amini lying braindead in hospital and her devastated parents embracing that spread rapidly online. 

On 29th September, security forces also arrested 36-year-old Elahe Mohammadi. A reporter for daily newspaper Hammihan, she had travelled to cover Amini’s funeral, during which thousands of people chanted “Jin, Jian, Azadi” (woman, life, freedom), for the first time. Nationwide protests followed, calling for justice for Mahsa Amini as well as personal and political liberties and accountability from the Iranian government.

On 28th October, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and the intelligence agency of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard accused both journalists of planning to orchestrate nationwide protests with their reporting as well as conspiring with the intelligence agencies of multiple foreign powers to undermine Iran’s national security.

Iran’s reaction to the latest protests that began in September 2022 has reinforced its reputation as one of the world’s most repressive countries for press freedom. Arbitrary arrest and lengthy prison terms are common practice. Mainstream media is predominantly controlled by the state, which has traditionally a very low tolerance for criticism. Under the strict Islamic regime of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is also head of the country’s main political, judicial, and military institutions, independent reporting is often labelled as foreign influenced.

Current reports suggest nearly 70 journalists – at least 22 of them women – have been arrested since mid-September. Elahe Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi stand accused of having ties to multiple foreign intelligence agencies, a common falsehood levied at detained journalists from both Iran’s intelligence service and Revolutionary Guards. Any trial they go on to face is likely to be before a revolutionary court and grossly unfair.

Control of information and repression of free speech is widespread, meaning journalists already worked under intense scrutiny inside Iran. However, since the recent protests the situation has significantly hardened: arrests, interrogations, imprisonment, surveillance, harassment, and threats have all intensified. Foreign-based Iranian journalists also report an uptick in threats and harassment.

The Golden Pen of Freedom is WAN-IFRA’s annual award, recognising individuals or organisations that have made an outstanding contribution to the defence and promotion of press freedom. One of the objectives of the Golden Pen is to turn the spotlight of public attention on repressive governments and the journalists who fight them. The laureate is nominated from a shortlist of candidates by the board of the World Editors Forum. The first Golden Pen of Freedom was awarded in 1961.

‘Let us once again raise our voices as one, loud and clear…’

Speech of Martha Ramos, World Editors Forum President, on the occasion of the award of the 2023 WAN-IFRA Golden Pen of Freedom to Elahe Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, friends. A very good morning.

It is my distinct honor to be here with you today. The Golden Pen of Freedom has been awarded by our organisation since 1961, recognising the achievement and sacrifice of so many outstanding journalists, editors, and publishers from around the world, all in the cause of press freedom. This year is no exception. As we gather here in Taipei to celebrate our annual meeting, discuss the challenges, changes, and opportunities in our vibrant, global industry, it is important also to recognize that we are more vulnerable today than perhaps at any other time.

Martha Ramos, World Editors Forum President, chief editorial officer OEM, Organizacion Editorial Mexicana, speaking in Taipei. Photo: WAN-IFRA

Producing quality journalism has never been so difficult. Business stability and the viability we all seek is so uncertain. The skills needed for our newsrooms to keep up with audience demands in an ever-more tech-driven world, force us to compete with giants of the broader media and entertainment industries – never mind that our product is news, fact, truth: not distraction, escapism, or fiction. We are told success means to streamline, be more efficient, agile, yet at the same time we are expected to be more present, more comprehensive, to be ‘doing more’ – a lot more – with far less than at any time in our history.

And this is all while our journalists are being threatened at an unprecedented rate and frequency. Safety and security, online and off, especially for women journalists, affects everyone in this industry. I come from Mexico, a country in which over 150 journalists have been murdered in the past two decades, simply for doing their jobs. We learned the hard way, but journalist safety should always be priority number one. Perhaps most worrisome for the future is what is eroding the very heart of our passion. A disease that, if left unchecked, will gnaw away at our commitment to truth, our belief in journalism to give voice to the voiceless, challenge power, and hold it to account.

It is the catastrophic idea that quality journalism, public interest journalism, the kind of journalism that allows people to make better choices, choose better lives, and live the best way they can, is there to be disputed, denied, denigrated. That good journalism is simply ‘just a story’, entertainment, and that there is no place for objective truth, fact, or accountability.

Post-truth, post-Trump, post-democratic – however you call it: loud, lawless, populist voices are everywhere denouncing journalism and pushing back at all attempts to check their lies, call out their hate speech, and debunk their absurdist, alternative realities. We speak about impunity for those who murder journalists, and indeed it is shocking. But there is growing impunity around the powerful, ruling elites who do and say whatever they like – and get away with it. In the hands of authoritarians, anti-democratic, fear-mongering revisionists, this impunity empowers and emboldens; it paints them as ‘the answer’ rather than the root cause. It keeps people in conflict rather than at peace. Is it any wonder people around the world drift towards this when the price of lies is far cheaper than the cost of truth?

The fact is clear and, yes, the facts are still important: we risk losing the battle to keep people on the side of journalism whenever we lose sight of truth, and why it matters. Which makes it even more important to celebrate good journalism every chance we get. Our Golden Pen laureates are precisely that.

Excellencies, ladies, and gentlemen I am delighted to announce the laureates of the 2023 Golden Pen of Freedom – two courageous young women whose journalism kept sight of truth as the Iranian regime attempted to rewrite history: Elahe Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi.

In her reporting, Mohammadi quoted Amini’s parents asking for people’s solidarity and defending their right to seek justice for their daughter. She was summoned by the security forces, arrested, and taken to the notorious Evin prison, charged as an agent of the CIA.On October 28th, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and the intelligence agency of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard accused both journalists of planning to orchestrate nationwide protests with their reporting and conspiring with the intelligence agencies of foreign powers to undermine Iran’s national security…

This is precisely the kind of distortion of reality that a paranoid, fearful regime seeks to portray as truth. It is a desperate attempt to deflect onto two young journalists all the frustration and anger that has risen to the surface because of years of oppression, denial of rights, and control of the narrative. It is a losing battle – eventually. What both women were doing is precisely their job as journalists. The Iranian people will not remain in a state of denial or servitude to tyrants, totalitarians, and those who deny basic human dignity.

But this comes at a price – one which is too high. It has been paid by generations of brave men and women who protest, who seek to hasten the demise of their oppressors. It has been paid by over 500 dead, and by tens of thousands arrested in Iran since September 2022. And it is paid by journalists, time and time again. Today, it is being paid by Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, and anywhere up to 60 of their jailed colleagues – 22 of them women journalists.

This is the 4th award of the Golden Pen to Iranian journalists. This is the 4th time we speak from this platform to denounce the jailing of Iranian journalists.

Let us once again raise our voices as one, loud and clear, so they hear us all the way in Tehran: release Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, and all jailed journalists. Let the press live free in Iran, once and for all…

(Courtesy: WAN-IFRA. Second article by Andrew Heslop, executive director, WAN-IFRA, who leads its Press Freedom team.)

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