Opinion: The Islamic republic killed Iranian journalism. Can it be resurrected in exile?

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An audacious plot by Iranian intelligence operatives to abduct a high-profile Iranian American journalist on U.S. soil was foiled last month. But the plan sent shock waves that continue to reverberate in the community of Iranian journalists working in exile. Many wonder if they might be Tehran’s next target.

Masih Alinejad, a frequent contributor to The Post, was tracked by Iranian agents who sought to kidnap her in New York City, where she lives, and transport her by sea — possibly to Venezuela, where she could then be sent to Iran to face an uncertain yet undoubtedly terrible fate.

In 2019, Ruhollah Zam, another dissident Iranian journalist, was lured from France to Iraq, where he was abducted and then sent back to Iran. After a rigged trial, he was sentenced to death and executed last year.

The world must take these threats seriously. More must be done to protect brave journalists and dissidents in exile.

The Washington-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran has identified more than 540 Iranians abroad “whose successful assassination or kidnapping have been attributed to Iran.” Among them have been many journalists.

These stories are chilling indicators of the length to which the Islamic republic, throughout its history, has been willing to go to silence dissent and truth-telling. But they are also testament to the power of journalism.

Journalists who flee Iran face precarious circumstances once they leave the country. But many have become windows to understanding an increasingly closed and authoritarian society.

Iran has been one of the most closed media landscapes for decades, but new legislation could make it much worse.

A bill that is quickly advancing through Iran’s parliament, called the “Bill for the Protection of the Rights of Cyberspace Users,” would effectively allow the Iranian regime to restrict online content available to Iranians, giving the government even greater access to monitor all online activity.

With domestic media unable to operate with any measure of independence, and international outlets severely hampered on what they can and can’t report from inside Iran, Iranian authorities are now looking beyond the country’s borders to stamp out any remaining critical and credible voices.

One of those voices made it to the United States very recently — Mohammad Mosaed, an award-winning journalist who came to international prominence when he tweeted about the government shutting down the Internet during the height of protests in November 2019.

Mosaed was immediately fired from his job at the Shargh Daily newspaper. Then he was arrested and charged with undermining Iran’s national security and spreading propaganda. After spending several weeks in Evin Prison, he was released on bail. Ultimately, he was convicted and sentenced to nearly five years in prison, banned from all social media and even from using communication devices for two years.

All over his use of Twitter.

“It wasn’t something that the regime could hide. The whole world knew it was happening, but this was the reason I was arrested. And I’m not the only person who experienced this treatment,” Mosaed told me this week. “The truth is that they’ve killed journalism in Iran.”

Facing a prison sentence and the end of his professional career, Mosaed decided to make the risky overland journey to Turkey. After several days of walking, he arrived on the other side of the border, cold and exhausted, without a passport or any idea of where he might end up.

With the help of press freedom advocates, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, he successfully petitioned for entry into the United States on humanitarian grounds. He is here now and knows that few of his former colleagues are as fortunate.

He says that some of Iran’s brightest journalists have been forced out of the industry by a system that won’t allow reporting it deems critical or even inquisitive. One former colleague drives a taxi, another works in a factory, another is now working as a painter.

Like him, others have chosen to leave Iran entirely and pursue journalism abroad.

These new voices in the diaspora have become more critical to understanding unfolding events inside Iran. They represent a crucial source of in-depth journalism about the country.

“Iran is like a black hole from which it’s very difficult to access accurate information,” Mosaed said. “In recent years, observers have ignored the fact that independent media isn’t active in the country.”

That’s led to consequential developments going mostly unreported. Some of those stories include Iran’s severe water shortage, which resulted in protesters being killed by security forces in recent days; the setbacks represented by declining birthrates; the steep drop of Iranians’ purchasing powerand the ever-tightening restrictions of expression.

Iran is a powder keg. The population is increasingly restless, and a new president with a past of extreme repression is taking office this week.

As the Biden administration hopes to revive nuclear talks with Iran, it would be wise to allow more Iranian journalists like Mosaed into the United States. Their insights have never been more valuable than right now.

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