(May 11) – Hard-line Iranian officials often speak with admiration about the “China model” of economic development and political control. Iran has clearly failed to equal China in terms of economic progress, but it has already exceeded its role model in one respect: jailing journalists.

Last weekend in Washington, several hundred Iranian-Americans and others gathered at George Washington University for a “night of solidarity” with Iran’s imprisoned scribes. Rudi Bakhtiar, a former journalist with CNN and Fox who is now a spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said Iran is now “No. 1 in the world when it comes to journalists in prison” having surpassed China.

“Journalism has now become the most dangerous profession in Iran.”

“One-third of the world’s journalists in prison are in Evin,” the dreaded penitentiary in Tehran, she added. They are there for “shedding light on gross human rights violations” committed by the Iranian regime since last year’s disputed presidential elections, such as the rape of prisoners and unprovoked attacks on students in their dormitories.

While high-profile journalists such as Maziar Bahari of Newsweek were freed on bail last year following massive international campaigns, more than 35 others remain in prison, according to the International Federation of Journalists. (Bahari was sentenced on May 10 to 13½ years in prison but is safe for now in London.) In comparison, China has about two dozen journalists in jail from a population that is nearly 20 times larger.

The PEN American Center puts the incarceration figure for Iran at 60 reporters and bloggers. Scores have also fled, mostly to Turkey. Clothilde Le Coz, Washington representative of Reporters Without Borders, said her organization has helped resettle 80 reporter refugees in the past few months. This is “the biggest exodus we’ve seen of reporters from Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution,” she said.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly told interviewers last week in New York, where he attended a conference on nuclear nonproliferation, that the only Iranians in jail in his country are those who advocated or participated in post-election violence. However, on May 8 Iran executed five Kurds arrested before the June 12 vote.

The crackdown against journalists appears to be motivated at least in part by revenge against old opponents. Among those who have spent months in Evin:

    * Saeed Laylaz, an economics columnist and former deputy interior minister who fired Ahmadinejad from the appointed position of governor of the northwestern province of Ardabil after Mohammad Khatami became president in 1997.
    * Longtime editor Mohammad Atrianfar, who directed Shargh, the reformist newspaper that was shut in 2006 after it printed a cartoon showing Ahmadinejad as a donkey. Atrianfar is also close to former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the most powerful rival to Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Both Laylaz and Atrianfar are currently out on bail but still in Iran. Among those who remain in prison:

    * Emadeddin Baghi, a well-known human rights advocate.
    * Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, who started – and was forced to shut – numerous reform newspapers.
    * Mohammad Davari, who exposed the torture, rape and killing of prisoners at the Kahrizak detention center in Tehran last year.

While the number of reporters in jail in Iran is at a record high, prison terms for journalists are not unprecedented in the Islamic Republic. Fereshteh Ghazi was jailed in 2004 for writing critically about a spy case against Iranian Jews and the death in detention of a Canadian-Iranian photo-journalist, Zahra Kazemi.

Ghazi told the Washington audience that journalism has now become the most dangerous profession in Iran.

Colleagues in Tehran tell her they feel as if they are “living in a house sitting on quicksand,” she said. They say that they keep a packed bag close at hand in case of a nocturnal knock on the door and that they “go to bed at night and … don’t know where we will wake up tomorrow.”

Ghazi says the Islamic Republic of Iran “fears journalists because it is afraid of the dissemination of information.” Iranian reporters are driving taxis and becoming street vendors to make a living while continuing to report and post stories and videos on the Internet “without expecting any reward or accolade,” she noted.

Even though reporters in Iran “seem to be facing one of the darkest eras,” Ghazi said, “my friends refuse to sell their pens or their dignity.”

The least American journalists – and everyone else who cares about free speech – can do for imprisoned journalists in Iran is to publicize their plight and demand that the Iranian government stop punishing the messenger.