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(New York) – The Iranian security forces’ November 21, 2011 raid on the offices of the official Iran newspaper and their attempt to arrest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s media adviser show the Iranian government’s extreme reaction to dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities detained about 40 staff members of the Iran daily while attempting to arrest Ali-Akbar Javanfekr, the head of the official Islamic Republic News Agency, who was conducting a news conference at the newspaper’s offices in Tehran. By evening, 30 of the 40 arrested staff members had been released, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The raid came after Iran’s Judiciary ordered the two-month closure of the reformist newspaper Etemad on November 19. Etemad had earlier published an interview in which Javanfekr criticized the Judiciary and opponents of Ahmadinejad. On November 22 Elias Hazrati, the managing editor of Etemad confirmed that his paper had been shut down because it had published an article about opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest since February, and because of the interview it had conducted with Javanfekr.

“The simultaneous crackdown on President Ahmadinejad’s media adviser, journalists working for a state-owned newspaper, and a reformist daily shows the absurd level of intolerance authorities have toward freedom of the press in Iran,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should release anyone still detained from the Iran daily raid and lift the ban on Etemad.”

The raid at Iran’s offices followed a ruling by a Tehran criminal court on November 20 sentencing Javenfekr to one year in prison and banning him from working for the news media for three years for “publishing materials contrary to Islamic norms.” The charge related to an article associated with Javanfekr that was published in a special issue of Iran in August. The article contained controversial statements suggesting that the practice of wearing the black chador, the full-body covering worn by many women in Iran, is not rooted in Islam.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as of December 2010, 34 journalists and bloggers were in Iran’s prisons. More than 60 journalists have been forced into exile in 2011 alone, and authorities have shut down at least 40 publications since 2009.

Prosecutors have charged journalists with offenses that on their face violate the right to freedom of expression, such as “propaganda against the regime.” Courts in these cases have handed down heavy prison terms, flogging sentences, and work bans. Iran has one of the worst records among the world’s countries for arresting and imprisoning journalists and bloggers.

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