NICOSIA: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Wednesday urged Iran to free a group of arrested journalists, saying their detention was part of a campaign of repression ahead of the June presidential election.
Iranian media reported last week that at least a dozen reformist journalists were rounded up in a string of operations for their alleged links to foreign Persian media.
"The arrests appear to be part of an escalating campaign of repression to silence journalists and bloggers before the presidential election scheduled for June 14," Human Rights Watch said.
"Iranian prosecutors have not explained why a journalist’s connections to foreign media or opposition political forces would be a crime," said the group's Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, in a statement.
Iran will hold its next presidential elections on June 14, after the result of the previous vote in 2009 triggered protests in Tehran and other cities, sparking a bloody crackdown by the regime on demonstrators.
Amnesty International too criticised the latest detentions.
The arrests "is a result of draconian restrictions on reporting which violate the right to freedom of expression and must be relaxed," said Ann Harrison, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, in a separate statement.
Culture minister Mohammad Hosseini said Monday investigations were under way to assess "the detention of the journalists and why they are detained."
On Tuesday, he repeated that the journalists did not face media-related charges, and "some of them had not been arrested but were only summoned to explain some issues," the Fars news agency reported.
"Some may have unwittingly tread on this path... (some) were directed from abroad to spread disappointment and despair in the country," he added.
The judiciary is yet to explain the arrests which reportedly were carried out on warrants issued by it.
The detainees work for various reformist outlets such as Shargh, Arman, Bahar and Etemad newspapers, the Aseman weekly, as well as the ILNA news agency, which focuses on social and labour issues.
Iranian media reports said the journalists were rounded up from their work places on charges of "cooperation with Persian-language anti-revolutionary media."
Tehran deems as hostile the Persian services of various international media, including the BBC Persian, the Voice of America and Radio Farda -- a US-funded Prague-based Persian radio.
The Islamic republic's press watchdog has banned several publications, mostly reformist journals, for breaching its strict regulations since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed June 2009 re-election.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 45 journalists were in Iranian prisons at the start of December 2012.