IRAN’S appalling decision to execute journalist Ruhollah Zam once again brings into focus states that curb freedom of expression in the name of maintenance of law and order and the protection of ideology. Mr Zam is the son of a cleric who served in the Iranian government in the 1980s. His website AmadNews ran videos and disseminated information which ‘helped inspire’ economic protests in Iran in 2017. At that time, he was living in exile in Paris. The circumstances of his return to his homeland remain a mystery, but it was reported that he was arrested in Iran in October 2019 and made to stand trial. The death sentence was announced on Tuesday. The journalist was declared guilty under the principle of ‘fasad fil arz’ or mischief or corruption on earth. The annoyance and anger that is demonstrated by governments everywhere against the media often turns into harsh action against the latter. Journalists are the first targets of those rulers who are wary of criticism, even if it is justified. With this unwillingness to be shown a mirror, it is not surprising that governments in many countries make it a point to rein in the ‘troublemakers’ who are out to report the popular sentiment — particularly in places where media protection laws are weak.
In the case of Iran too, it has been difficult for journalists to report freely — especially in an environment where human rights defenders are routinely jailed for raising their voice. There are a number of journalists — 24 of them according to one count in February — who are said to be behind bars. All these cases, topped by the death sentence against Mr Zam, are clearly meant as a warning. This is a strategy that is outdated and ill advised. Journalists are armed with words, and if the state has to respond to them, then it should do so using the same arsenal, ie words — and not bully, beat, threaten and kill them. Ruhollah Zam’s sentence must be revoked.
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2020