Conspicuous tweets by two environmental journalists in recent days reveal possible pressures on social media influencers to refrain from public criticism of unfair arrests and trails.
The journalists abruptly changing their previous positions came out supporting the verdict against Morad Tahbaz, a jailed Iranian-American ecologist. This has given rise to concerns over pressure on journalists to drop reporting about him and the verdict passed on him.
Morad Tahbaz is a co-founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) who was arrested in January 2018 along with eight other PWHF-affiliated individuals. He is currently serving a ten-year sentence at Tehran's notorious Evin prison for "having had contacts with the hostile government of the United States."
One of the tweets was posted by a veteran environmental reporter, Mojgan Jamshidi. In her tweet, she stressed that she respects "the court verdict" against the jailed environmentalists. Her message was retweeted by another environmental journalist, Zainab Rahimi.
"We will all keep silent, but beware, silence is full of unspoken words," Ms. Rahimi commented on her colleague's original tweet.
The second tweet with more explicit hints was written by Leila Margan, another journalist who specializes in environmental issues. She wrote that she had accepted the verdict as the ultimate source for verifying "espionage charges," and apologized for her own previous tweets, adding, "I would stop tweeting about the case."
In Ms. Margan's tweet, the term "charges of spying" is a noteworthy hint. The term has been frequently used by the Revolutionary Guard's Intelligence Organization against the imprisoned environmentalists.
Broadcasting forced confessions on television, pressuring the media or journalists to apologize or publish corrections to their reports have been common in past decades in the clergy-dominated Iran. However, forcing journalists to "confess on Twitter" is unprecedented.
Since the arrest of the environmentalists more than two years ago, there has been a heated debate among the Islamic Republic' parallel intelligence agencies over the allegations.
While the Revolutionary Guard's Intelligence Organization has repeatedly accused the environmentalists of "espionage," the Ministry of Intelligence and Department of Environment (DoE) have frequently begged to differ.
In a note for daily Etemad in October 2019, Mohammad Reza Tabesh, a former member of the Parliament, said that there was an ongoing dispute between the Ministry of Intelligence and the parallel Revolutionary Guard-linked intelligence body over the espionage charges brought against the environmentalists. Based on the Iranian Constitution, the Ministry of Intelligence is the sole authority to decide whether a crime of spying has been committed or not, Tabesh asserted.
Earlier, in June 2018, the head of the DoE and Deputy President, Isa Kalantari, had also insisted that the Ministry of Intelligence had "concluded that there was no evidence that these individuals were spies."
According to Isa Kalantari, the Head of the DoE, a four-member panel formed by President Hassan Rouhani's order also voted for "elimination of the espionage charges." The panel consisted of the ministers of intelligence, justice, and interior, as well as the vice-president for legal affairs.
Despite these disagreements, an Islamic Revolutionary court on February 20 sided with the Revolutionary Guard and found six of the environmentalists guilty of espionage. They were sentenced to a total of 48 years in jail.
In February in a letter to the Chief Justice, one of the defendants, Ms. Niloufar Bayani, disclosed that the Revolutionary Guard was determined to sentence them for espionage.
In the letter, published on the BBC's Persian website on February 11, Ms. Bayani cited one of her interrogators as saying, "Any judge daring to issue a verdict other than the one prepared by the Intelligence Organization will get a punch in the mouth".
The pressure has mounted to force these journalists to endorse the court verdict dictated by the Revolutionary Guard agents and make sure that they will not raise any objection to it.
Apparently, intimidating journalists is presumed less costly than summoning them to court. A tweet is written, hundreds of people see it and it is forgotten after two or three days, but other journalists get the message loud and clear.
A journalist, who has been forced to tweet a confession says, "I can't breathe," while the interrogators and intelligence agents roar: "You are n-o-t allowed to breathe".