TEHRAN - Iranian authorities have arrested at least six Internet journalists and webloggers in recent days, colleagues and relatives said on Wednesday, in a further blow to limited press freedoms in the Islamic state.
News-based Internet sites and online journals known as Weblogs have flourished in Iran where the disproportionately youthful population often turns to the Internet for information and entertainment.
The hardline judiciary's muzzling of print media through the closure of some 100 publications in the last four years also meant the Internet became a haven for liberal journalists seeking a place to write.
Journalists and relatives named the six arrested journalists and Webloggers as Shahram Rafizadeh, Babak Ghafouri-Azar, Rouzbeh Amir-Ebrahimi, Hanif Mazroui, Omid Memarian and Mostafa Derayati.
"We do not know where they are being held. We heard they have been kept in solitary confinement," said a relative of one of the detainees, who asked not to be named.
Iran's pro-reform Press Association, denounced the move.
"We protest against these arrests. Ignoring the detainees' right to a lawyer is unlawful," Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a leading member of the association, told Reuters.
International human rights groups frequently criticize the lack of freedom of expression in Iran which they say has more journalists in jail than any other country in the Middle East.
Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad told the ISNA students news agency on Tuesday that several journalists from "illegal Internet sites" would soon go on trial.
They will face charges of "propagating against the regime, acting against national security, disturbing the public mind and also insulting religious sanctities," he said.
Analysts linked the arrests to a recent shift to the right in Iran's domestic politics as pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami's seven-year effort to foster greater social freedoms, justice and democracy fizzles to an end.
Khatami's second and final term in office ends in mid-2005 with Islamic conservatives opposed to any watering down of Iran's system of clerical rule poised to recapture the government from reformers just as they re-took parliament and local governments in the past two years.