Why is Iran killing journalists?

Yesterday's execution of dissident Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam show that the Iranian regime feels increasingly cornered.

File - In this June 2, 2020 file photo, journalist Ruhollah Zam speaks during his trial at the Revolutionary Court, in Tehran, Iran. Iran. Tranian state television and the state-run IRNA news agency say Ruhollah Zam was hanged early Saturday, Dec. 11, 2020, just months after he returned to Tehran under mysterious circumstances. (Ali Shirband/Mizan News Agency via AP, File)

Yesterday in Iran, Ruhollah Zam, a dissident Iranian journalist was executed. He had been convicted of “spreading corruption on earth”, one of the most serious charges in the Iranian legal system. The basis of the accusation was his activity related to widespread protests in 2017-2018 over rising food prices. Zam’s news channel, broadcast through the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which is hugely popular in the country, had over 1 million followers. Its feed disseminated images and locations of protests, as well as embarrassing details about Iran’s regime.

Mr Zam’s father is a reformist Iranian cleric, who held policymaking positions in the government the 1980s. Although he distanced himself from his son’s actions during the demonstrations two years ago, the clerical background of Mr Zam’s family subtly demonstrates the readiness of an ever-widening group within the Iranian public to express anger at the regime.

Previous protest movements in the country, most notably the Green Movement of 2009, were branded by the government as the whining of spoilt middle class liberals, who it claims wanted to import Western ideals into the country and undermine the 1979 revolution. However, in 2017, anger originated from working class - including pious and conservative - Iranians enraged over something as fundamental to their lives as the rising prices of bread and eggs. Suddenly, the traditional support base of the Iranian regime was chanting against President Hassan Rouhani, in some instances even the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

This explains the threat posed to Iran’s government by someone like Mr Zam. Tragically, many have shared his fate in recent times, and they are not just limited to journalists. In September, Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari was executed for his alleged murder of a security guard in the same anti-government protests of 2017-2018. The ensuing global outcry focused on allegations that Mr Afkari was forced to confess after being tortured.

epa08663502 A undated handout photo made available 12 September 2020 by National Council of Resistance Iran (NWRI) and the Iranian Exile Society, showing Iranian champion wrestler Navid Afkari at a undisclosed location. Iran's national news agency IRNA confirmed 12 September 2020 Iran had executed Navid Afkari for a murder that he according to Iran's judicial authorities had confessed to. Many leading international organizations had protested the planned execution and asked Iran to spare Afkari's life.  EPA/NWRI HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Tehran will inevitably attempt to portray these victims of its violent rule as part of a fifth column, funded by foreign intelligence agencies to weaken Iranian security. The regime, since its inception in 1979, has justified its aggression on the claim that it stands alone against a Western-led conspiracy to undermine the country and its revolution. However, the circumstances around how Mr Zam, who resided in France until last year, ended up in Iranian custody are suspicious, to say the least. While Iran claims to have captured him in a complex operation, there are other reports indicating he was arrested by Iraqi intelligence officers during a visit to Baghdad and subsequently extradited to Iran, or even that he was kidnapped or lured from Europe. In all cases, it is a stark example of the regime’s contradictory stance with respect to foreign interference. It consistently accuses Western nations of spreading their tentacles into Iran, while it threatens the lives of Iranians using agents and proxies overseas.

Those who continue to advocate a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, should take the case of Mr Zam as demonstration that the agreement’s terms do not effectively constrain the regime. They do little to curb its widespread interference in the Middle East and further afield, as well as the abuse it subjects it citizens to – even when they are under the protection of European states.

There is a tragic irony to the charges levelled against Mr Zam. Empowering the voices of those going hungry in the country was a noble, not punishable endeavour. But in Iran, where senior members of the government routinely indulge in materialistic and worldly hypocrisy, the fatal accusation of “corruption on earth” is clearly applied cynically and arbitrarily.