Yalda Moaiery has traveled to some of the most dangerous countries in the world in her 23-year career. She photographed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and has covered conflict and natural disasters from Pakistan to Somalia.
But it was while photographing protests in her home country of Iran last September that Moaiery was arrested, beaten and sent to prison.
The 41-year-old journalist was released on bail in December and is now awaiting a summons to start serving her sentence: a six-year prison term on anti-state charges, followed by a two-year ban from using social media and leaving the country and a three-year ban from practicing journalism.
Despite that, Moaiery has continued to work. Her fearlessness and tenacity have earned her this year’s International Women’s Media Foundation, or IWMF, Wallis Annenberg Justice for Women Journalists Award.
Established in 2021, the award recognizes imprisoned women journalists who have demonstrated courage under extreme threat. That’s something Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the IWMF, says Moaiery exemplifies.
“She is the epitome of an incredibly courageous woman journalist,” Muñoz told VOA. “And how ironic that it’s in her own country, covering her community, that she is not only thrown in jail but also beaten and reporting on what is happening to her while she is being driven off to prison.”
Top jailer of journalists
Moaiery is one of at least 95 journalists imprisoned in Iran since last September, according to media rights groups. Many were arrested for covering the protests that erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman who died while in police custody.
At least 24 of those were women, making Iran the top jailer of both journalists and women journalists in the world.
As Moaiery said in a written statement shared with VOA, “I am receiving this award while the job of journalist has disappeared in my country.”
“We feel really strongly that these journalists are not getting the attention that they deserve because it is being subsumed as part of this general protest where hundreds of women are being targeted,” Muñoz told VOA. “And we feel that the distinction here is absolutely critical — that these women are being targeted because of their work and because they’re women, not necessarily because they are participating in part of a public protest.”
Also of concern, said Muñoz, are accounts of women “in Iranian prisons being sexually assaulted.”
“They’re also being beaten. They’re also being tortured in other ways that, of course, we have heard [that] men experience, but there is always that added element that has to do with their gender,” Muñoz told VOA.
Iran’s mission at the United Nations did not respond to VOA’s emailed request for comment.
Crackdown on dissent
Media coverage of the protest movement may have lessened in recent months, but the protests are still taking place, even if on a smaller scale, said Yeganeh Rezaian, a senior researcher at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ.
And authorities are still arresting journalists and putting others on trial. Just this week, Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, who were among the first to be arrested for their coverage of Amini’s case, appeared before a Tehran court for a second trial. They have already spent more than 300 days in prison.
Adding to the pressures, many of those released on bail are banned from working in media while they await summons to begin their sentence. With no means of making a living and uncertainty about when they will be taken to prison, many must rely on friends and family for support.
“Everyone has been kept in darkness and uncertainty,” said Rezaian.
Iran has long used harsh treatment to send a message to its critics. Doing so, she said, is “meant to send an alarm to everyone else that this is going to be your destiny if you keep doing what you’re doing or if you do similar things like your other colleagues.”
But journalists like Moaiery refuse to be silenced.
Rezaian, who knows Moaiery from her time living and working as a journalist in Iran, refers to her friend and colleague as “fearless and very fierce.”
She cites Moaiery’s work not only in war zones, but also at home in Iran, documenting young women’s struggles with mandatory hijab, and always being one of the first to cover nationwide protests.
“She was arrested in the very first week of [the 2022] protests, which shows how much she was willing to risk,” Rezaian told VOA. “And this is not the first time that her perseverance got her into the hands of the officials because she has done this many, many times for the good of the country and the women and the stories that she covers.”
While Rezaian is grateful that Moaiery has received recognition for her courage, she hopes the award will bring attention to the dozens of other journalists and the many women who are struggling under the Iranian regime.
Moaiery echoed Rezaian’s sentiments.
“Journalists are threatened and arrested every moment, and two of our colleagues are still in prison for more than 300 days,” she wrote in a statement shared with VOA.
“Apart from the problems and issues of a journalism job, as women every day we are facing the violation of civil rights and the risk of being arrested for [not] wearing a voluntary hijab.”
She added, “Receiving such award for me and other Iranian women means that our voices are heard.”