U.S. Report: Restrictions on Civil Liberties in Iran

Iran stifled freedom of expression in 2023 by censoring media, harassing and detaining rights activists, journalists and artists, and restricting access to the internet, the State Department reported. The Islamic Republic “showed blatant disregard to a free and open press and media environment,” State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel said on April 23, 2024. The regime systematically quashed criticism of government policies.

The annual report highlighted the case of dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi, which reflected the arbitrary nature of the justice system. In July 2023, he had been sentenced to six years and three months in prison for supporting the nationwide demonstrations sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody in 2022. He was released on bail in November 2023 but arrested again two weeks later and sentenced to death in April 2024. “This grotesque manipulation of the judicial process aims to silence dissent,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Toomaj’s imprisonment stems from his vocal advocacy against state oppression.” The following are excerpts from the State Department’s annual human rights report.


Respect for Civil Liberties


The constitution provided for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, except when deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the law, “Anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”

The nonbinding Charter on Citizens’ Rights – signed in 2016 by then President Rouhani – acknowledged the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression, including the right to seek, receive, publish, and communicate views and information, using any means of communication. The charter had not been implemented as of year’s end.

Freedom of Expression: The law provided for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state, crimes against national security, or “insulting” Islam. The government severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights concerns or questioned the government’s morality code enforcement. The government routinely cut off access to the internet, slowed internet speeds, and blocked websites and social media platforms. According to an Access Now report published in February, in 2022, authorities imposed an unprecedented 18 shutdowns across the country as part of an escalating wave of digital repression responding to protests sparked by the death Mahsa Zhina Amini.

Authorities did not permit individuals to publicly criticize the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions, as well as those who publicly criticized the president, supreme leader, cabinet, and parliament. The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security for insulting the regime, citing as evidence letters, emails, social media posts, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened individuals with arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.

Civil and labor activist Sepideh Qolian was released in March after serving more than four years in prison but was rearrested four hours later after chanting antiregime slogans. Subsequently, she was sentenced in May to two years’ imprisonment for insulting the supreme leader. The court also gave her a two-year ban on using a smartphone, residing in Tehran or neighboring provinces, and being a member in a political or social group. In September, Qolian received an additional 15-month prison sentence for slander after she accused a proregime reporter of interrogating and torturing her while in prison.

Musician and composer Erfan Khalilian was sentenced in January to almost 10 years in prison and 74 lashes for insulting the leadership, insulting the founder of the revolution (Ayatollah Khomeini), attending illegal gatherings, and disrupting national security.

The government maintained control over cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits, and censored those productions deemed to transgress Islamic values. According to the NGO Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), the nine-member film review council of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, consisting of clerics, former directors, former parliamentarians, and academics, had to approve the content of every film before production and again before public presentation. Films could be barred arbitrarily from presentation even if all appropriate permits were received in advance. The government censored or banned films deemed to promote secularism and those containing what it deemed to be un-Islamic ideas concerning women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcohol.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was required to approve song lyrics, music, and album covers to ensure they complied with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission.

In July, Rapper Toomaj Salehi was sentenced to six years and three months in prison by the Isfahan Revolutionary Court on charges of corruption on earth, according to one of his lawyers. He was also given a two-year ban on producing music or singing. Toomaj was initially arrested in October 2022 after releasing rap lyrics that criticized the government for a “year of colossal failure” and sharing videos on his Instagram account in support of public protests.

On November 18, the Supreme Court rejected the ruling and Toomaj was released on bail. Less than two weeks later, however, Toomaj was rearrested in the city of Babol by plainclothes agents wielding Kalashnikovs and handguns, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). At the year’s end, he was awaiting a sentence.

Violence and Harassment: The government and its agents harassed, detained, abused, and prosecuted publishers, editors, and journalists and members of their families, including those involved in internet-based media, for their reporting on topics considered sensitive by the government.

In October, Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, two of the first journalists to report on Mahsa Zhina Amini’s death, were sentenced to 13 and 12 years in jail, respectively. They were charged with collaborating with the “hostile American government,” colluding against national security, and spreading propaganda against the regime, according to the government’s judiciary news website. Judiciary spokesperson Masood Setayeshi had previously stated that both journalists were accused of collaborating with “the hostile government of the United States.” At the time of their sentencing, they had been held in temporary detention for more than one year, which exceeded the maximum time permitted for temporary detention under the criminal procedure code. In September, media reported that Mohammadi was in a “dire health situation” in prison.

IranWire journalist Sima Shahrabi, who was based abroad, reported in late May that her brother Sajjad Shahrabi had been in police custody for more than three weeks because of her work. She also reported that her family members were summoned by intelligence officers and interrogated regarding her activities. Sajjad Shahrabi was later convicted of collusion to commit a crime against internal and external security and propaganda against the regime, for which he received a 10-month prison sentence, a two-year travel ban, and a two-year ban from using social media.

Censorship or Content Restrictions for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The government largely controlled the country’s media. According to Reporters Without Borders, the constitution protected press freedom, but the 1986 press law enabled authorities to prevent journalists from “endangering the Islamic Republic” or “offending the clergy and the supreme leader.”

The government’s Press Supervisory Board regulated media content and publication, including the issuance of press licenses, which it sometimes revoked or did not renew in response to articles critical of the government or the regime or for those who were incarcerated for political reasons. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance reviewed all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release and could deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require edits. Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations. During the year, the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials.

The Press Supervisory Board banned Sazandegi newspaper on February 20 after alleging the news outlet published false content and had disturbed public opinion, citing a story that claimed the government was mishandling escalating meat prices. The ruling was overturned on March 1 after a prosecutor from the Ministry of Culture found no factual contradictions and concluded that the newspaper had only taken an analytical approach.

On September 4, the Press Supervisory Board ordered the closure of the news site Entekhab, according to Entekhab and other domestic press outlets. As reported by the Fars media outlet, Entekhab was closed due to the publication of a video and article that criticized the government’s foreign policy toward Russia and China.

Private broadcasting was severely restricted, since it required obtaining a permit, which was rarely granted. The government maintained an effective monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through IRIB, a government agency. Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens, particularly in rural areas with limited internet access, reflected the government’s political and socioreligious ideology.

The government jammed satellite broadcasts, a continuous practice since at least 2003. Satellite dishes were illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes could be subject to fines.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country. The ministry required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limited their ability to travel within the country, and forced them to work with a local “minder.”

The government censored publications that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. IRNA determined the main topics and types of news to be covered, and distributed topics required for reporting directly to various media outlets, according to IHRDC. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, reports of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees. Authorities also banned national and international media outlets from covering demonstrations.

Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship through arrests and imprisonments. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board referred such complaints to the Press Court for further action, including possible closure, suspension, and fines. The judicial system and other government entities often overtly censored journalists who had been imprisoned in the past.

In January, journalist Nazila Maroufian was given a two-year suspended sentence and a five-year ban on leaving the country on charges of antigovernment propaganda and spreading false news. Maroufian had been arrested after interviewing Mahsa Zhina Amini’s father and publishing an article that challenged the official government account that Amini died in custody as a result of pre-existing medical conditions. Maroufian reported that the court reached its decision in her case without a hearing and in the absence of a defense lawyer. In July, Maroufian was rearrested and charged with propaganda against the regime and with assembly and collusion against the regime. In August, Maroufian was arrested again for allegedly “promoting immorality” by wearing “inappropriate clothing” in public and publishing photographs on social media. The Committee for the Defense of Political and Civil Prisoners and Maroufian’s neighbors reported that security forces assaulted her during the arrest. Maroufian reported that she had also been sexually assaulted during her arrest.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander, and blasphemy were criminal offenses. The government continued to use libel and slander laws, among others, to suppress criticism. According to the law, if any publication contained personal insults, libel, false statements, or criticism, even if truthful, the insulted individual had the right to respond in the publication within one month. By law, “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they were in the country, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to alter but not overthrow the government, were considered political crimes and subject to certain trial and detention procedures. The government applied the law throughout the year, often citing statements made in various media outlets or on internet platforms that criticized the government in the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of individuals for crimes against national security.

In July, Behrooz Behzadi, the editor in chief of Etemad newspaper, was found guilty of publishing false content based on a complaint filed by the IRGC regarding Etemad’s reporting on the government’s targeting of artists who supported the protests. Authorities banned Behzadi from engaging in any media activities, including those online, for one year.

On May 8, Yousef Mehrdad and Sadrollah Fazeli-Zare were executed for insulting the prophet, blasphemy, insulting the prophet’s mother, and belittling the Quran. The charges were based on messages the two broadcast on a Telegram channel they administered called “Criticism of Superstition and Religion.” Authorities also claimed to have found evidence of burning the Quran on Mehrdad’s cell phone.

National Security: Authorities routinely cited laws on protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government and human rights defenders or to deter criticism of government policies or officials.

In July, authorities sentenced two journalists – Saeideh Shafiei and Nasim Sultan Beygi – each to four years and three months in prison on charges of propaganda against the regime, assembly, and collusion to commit acts against national security. Shafiei was charged for writing several articles on rising poverty and government management of public resources. Sultan Beygi’s charges were reportedly based on her collaboration with domestic and foreign media outlets.

At year’s end, activist and 2021 reformist presidential candidate Mostafa Tajzadeh was serving a five-year prison sentence on charges of conspiracy to act against the country’s security, according to semiofficial Fars news agency. His arrest in July 2022 came after Tajzadeh had criticized authorities on social media and called for reform.

Internet Freedom

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content, and there were reports that the government monitored private online communications. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology were the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems, and they maintained monopoly control over internet traffic flowing in and out of the country. The Office of the Supreme Leader included the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.

The law prohibited use of virtual private networks and circumvention tools.

The country’s Radio Communications Regulatory Organization had to approve all internet service providers. The government also required all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that comprised the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content, the governmental organization that determined censoring criteria. These agencies included the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, Ministry of Intelligence, and Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.

According to Freedom House, authorities employed a centralized filtering system that could effectively block a website within a few hours across the entire network. Private internet service providers were forced either to use the bandwidth provided by the government or to route traffic containing site-visit requests through government-issued filtering boxes developed by software companies within the country. This routing allowed government censorship of online content and surveillance of all activities through these websites.

The government continued to implement the National Information Network (NIN, also known as SHOMA in Persian). As described by Freedom House, NIN enabled the government to reduce foreign internet connections during politically sensitive periods, disconnect the national network from the global internet and all its content, and disrupt circumvention tools.

According to a report by the Tehran Electronic Trade Association, one-third of the 200 most popular websites available via the global internet were inaccessible in Iran due to filtering or blocking by authorities. Many websites of popular international news outlets, the political opposition, ethnic and religious minority groups, and human rights organizations were inaccessible. Authorities blocked widely used online messaging tools, including Facebook, YouTube, X (formerly Twitter), Telegram, TikTok, and WhatsApp, although the government operated X accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Raisi, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, and other government-associated officials and entities. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.

Government organizations, including the Basij Cyber Council, Cyber Police, and Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyberthreats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites, and they reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems online.


The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution permitted assemblies and marches of unarmed persons, “provided they do not violate the principles of Islam.” To prevent activities it considered antiregime, the government restricted this right and closely monitored gatherings such as public entertainment and lectures, student and women’s meetings and protests, meetings and worship services of minority religious groups, labor protests, online gatherings and networking, funeral processions, and Friday prayer gatherings.

According to activists, the government arbitrarily applied rules governing permits to assemble, with proregime groups rarely experiencing difficulties, while groups viewed as critical of the regime experienced harassment regardless of whether or not authorities issued a permit. Authorities responded to antiregime protests with force, including beatings, shootings, and arrests, resulting in injuries and deaths.

On September 29, CHRI, NGO Haalvash, and media outlets reported that at least 29 protesters were injured by rubber bullets after authorities opened fire on protests in Zahedan. The protests marked the one-year anniversary of “Bloody Friday,” in which NGO Hengaw claimed more than 100 protesters in Zahedan were killed by security forces the year before.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provided for the establishment of political parties, professional and political associations, and Islamic and recognized religious minority organizations, as long as such groups did not violate the principles of freedom, sovereignty, national unity, or Islamic criteria, or question Islam as the basis of the country’s system of government. The government limited the freedom of association through threats, intimidation, the imposition of arbitrary requirements on organizations, and the arrests of group leaders and members (see section 5 and section 7.a.). The government continued to broaden arbitrarily the areas of civil society work it deemed unacceptable, to include conservation and environmental efforts. Authorities targeted school and university campuses to suppress social and political activism by banning independent student organizations, arresting activists, suspending or expelling students, and demoting or dismissing teachers and professors.

On May 9, teachers staged protests in 12 provinces in response to reports of school poisonings predominantly in girls’ schools, to demand better salaries and pensions, and to denounce pressure on union activists and ideological indoctrination in educational materials. Security forces reportedly dispersed a teacher protest in Mashhad and assaulted protesters in Sanandaj. According to reports, several teachers who participated in the protests were arrested and several others summoned by prosecutors. Many teachers were later demoted or otherwise penalized for participating in protests, according to NGO reports.


The law provided for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions, particularly concerning released prisoners, women, and migrants.

In-country Movement: Judicial sentences sometimes included internal exile after release from prison, which prevented individuals from traveling to or living in certain provinces. Refugees were also restricted to only live in or travel to certain provinces.

Foreign Travel: Citizens who were educated at government expense or received scholarships had either to repay the scholarship or receive a temporary permit to exit the country. The government restricted the foreign travel of some religious leaders, members of religious minorities, and scientists in sensitive fields.

Numerous journalists, academics, opposition politicians, civil rights activists, and artists were subject to foreign travel bans and had their passports confiscated. Married women were not allowed to travel outside the country without permission from their husbands.

Political activists Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Majid Tavakoli, Mahmoud Ojaghlou, and Ali Bahrampour were banned from leaving the country as part of their sentences issued during the year. Charges against them included inciting persons to fight and kill each other with the intention of disrupting the country’s security, insulting the leadership, assembly and collusion against the regime, gathering and collusion against the security of the country, and propaganda activity against the Islamic Republic.

Filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof, Masoud Kimiai, and Ali Ahmadzadeh were banned from leaving the country to attend international film festivals during the year. Filmmakers Asghar Farhadi and Manijeh Hekmat also reported that they had been banned from leaving the country or working.

In August, Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced film director Saeed Roustaee and producer Javad Noruzbegi to six months in prison for showing their film “Leila’s Brothers” at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival without government permission. The pair served an estimated nine days in prison, with the remainder of the sentence “suspended over five years,” preventing them from continuing their film work. Domestic media reported the court convicted them of “contributing to propaganda of the opposition against the Islamic system,” required them to take a filmmaking course on “preserving national and ethical interests” at the government-affiliated Qom branch of IRIB University. The court also prohibited the pair from having contact with the film industry for five years.