Reported by Hamed Kazemzadeh, Alberto Zanconato, Greg Bruno
There are several political parties in Iran, but they do not, or cannot, play an effective role in the political arena because of the Freedom of Media. As a result, the mass media, particularly newspapers and websites, have assumed a central role in the Iranian political and social life.
Iranian authorities have reinforced controls on major domestic media. Yet Iran’s media landscape, like many aspects of the theocratic regime, is riddled with contradictions. The flow of information into and within Iran has genuinely improved over the last decades; since 2000, Iran’s leaders have oscillated between tightening and loosening restrictions on the country’s domestic news media. While Iran’s reformist (or liberal) news outlets have suffered funding cuts and closures, conservative newspapers now frequently criticize government policies. Some foreign journalists say they, too, have seen past restrictions ease, and despite recent Iranian attempts to jam signals and confiscate satellite dishes, the transmission of foreign-funded Persian news broadcasts are proliferating, giving Iranians greater access to British, French, and U.S. broadcasting inside Iran.
The situation of the media in Iran reflects, to a certain extent, the contradictions of the complex political life and institutional architecture of the Islamic Republic. The absolute authority of the Supreme Leader, at present ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lives together with elective offices and bodies, such as the President of the Republic – that is also the head of the government – and the parliament. Candidates to such elective positions have to nevertheless go through a vetting process where the main role is played by the Guardian Council, one of the many centers of power directly or indirectly controlled by the Leader himself.
The media are controlled and censored and journalists and bloggers Citizen Reporter in Cyberspace face a very high risk of arrest and interrogation and imprisonment for their activity. Iran is at the 173th place in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders in 2020 out of a total of 180 countries. “Iran continues to be one of the world’s five biggest prisons for media personnel”, says the organisation. All TV and radio stations broadcasting from the country are in the hands of the regime, the control on the activity of the press is very strict and dozens of publications, most of them reformists, have been suppressed over the years. Within the unwritten and inconsistent with the law ‘red lines’ that nobody is allowed to cross – opposition to the system of the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader and Islam (according to the interpretation given by the system itself) – the political debate in the press and internet media may be surprisingly lively and open and criticism of public figures, including members of the government and of the parliament, is not uncommon. But the boundaries imposed by the law in such cases are uncertain, and allow authorities to intervene with severe measures at their will in case of reporting about sensitive issues.
Other contradictions concern the access to some basic instruments of information. The State has monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting, as stated by article 44 of the Constitution. This activity is managed by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), whose Director General is appointed by the Supreme Leader. But millions of Iranians follow also the programs of foreign-based stations, illegally using TV dishes. Many websites and social media, including Telegram, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, are blocked by the authorities, but are used by millions more citizens, including activists and dissidents, that access the banned sites through anti-filter systems. Also the most important officials have profiles on Facebook and Twitter.
Media have always had a fundamental role in Iranian politics, and their fortunes have coincided with those of the political awakenings that have characterised Iranian history since the beginning of the twentieth century. That is since the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911) that saw secular and Marxist groups join forces with part of the Shiite clergy and the merchants of the Bazaar to limit the powers of the Qajar dynasty. It was in those years that Iranians started to use new words like demokrasi (democracy), sosialism (socialism) and jomhouri (republic), while 90 newspapers were founded and became the voices of a free political debate. The names of some of them were particularly meaningful: Asr-e Now (The New Era), Esteqlal (Independence) and Eqbal (Progress). A similar flourishing of publications happened in the years after World War Two and continued up to the new wave of nationalism that brought with it the nationalisation of the oil industry by the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1951. Iran had arrived to having 300 newspapers, 25 of them dailies, before the coup d’etat supported by the United States and Great Britain that overthrew the government of Mossadeq in 1953.
The following repression, especially in the years after the first attempted insurrection by the Islamic movement of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini in 1963, drastically reduced the press activity. In 1978, at the wake of the revolution, the number of the newspapers had gone down to less than 100, 23 of which were dailies, in spite of the fact that the population had doubled to 35 million and the literacy rate had increased five times, to over 50 percent. The control of the government over the press had become asphyxiating, to the point that it was an article published on the order of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, by one of the major newspapers at the time, Ettela’at (Information), that provoked the first spark of the big fire. The story, containing false accusations against Ayatollah Khomeini, at the time in exile in Iraq, led to a demonstration against the monarchy in the Shiite holy city of Qom in January 1978. It was the first episode of a movement of protests that in a few months was to engage the whole country in a chain reaction snowball effect.
Iran’s first press law was passed on February 8, 1908, a law that had 52 articles and was based on the legal provisions of the French Press Law of July 29, 1881.
In 1942, the Ghavam government introduced a bill to amend the Press Law. The bill, passed on January 3 of that year, was an appendix to Iran’s first press law that required the publication of a journal, in addition to previous terms, financial capability, and scientific and moral capital. On August 11, 1952, when Mohammad Mossadegh, the first prime minister, had obtained permission from the parliament to write a law, he wrote a law for the press, according to which the granting of powers to the prime minister was approved in 46 articles and 11 notes.
After the coup d’état of August 19, 1953 and the removal of Mossadegh from the post of Prime Minister, according to the law abolishing all bills approved by Mohammad Mossadegh, The second law was repealed until on August 2, 1954, the 18th Majlis passed a new press law with the same headings and with a slight change to 42 articles.that this law would be implemented until the victory of the Islamic Revolution. In this law, which was slightly different from the previous law, the licensee must have both a bachelor’s degree and financial ability.
After the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian Press Law was changed once again on August 11, 1979, under the name of “Legal Press Bill”. The bill included issues such as the definition of the press, the conditions for obtaining a journal privilege, press crimes and how to deal with crimes.
In March 1985, a new press law was passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly, which was at the height of the conflict. In this law, in order to give permission for the publication to the applicants and to investigate the violations of the press, the “Supervisory Board” was appointed and the decision of the Supervisory Board was declared “final”. Being a journalist is not a prerequisite for obtaining a license; However, the qualifications of the applicants must be approved by the Ministries of Intelligence, Justice and Police. He has also not been active and propagandized against the regime of the Islamic Republic and has not been one of the officials of the previous regime and the affiliates of the former regime for some time from May 22, 1963 to February 11, 1979.
After 1985, the Press Law has been amended in various periods. In the last year of the Fifth Majlis, with a conservative majority, restrictive articles were added to the press law, and on April 20, 2000, it was finally approved by the Islamic Consultative Assembly. The sixth reformist parliament’s efforts to amend the press law were halted with the intervention of the leadership, and so far the same press law passed by the fifth parliament has ruled the press in Iran.
Media after the revolution
The fall of the monarchy, in February 1979, marked the beginning of a short season of freedom on the political scene and the press and saw the number of publications reaching more than 700. But this ‘Spring of Freedom’ didn’t last long. The Khomeinists, helped also by the emergency situation provoked by the war with Iraq that started in September 1980, soon took full control of power.
Many newspapers were closed, among them those linked to the Marxist and secular factions that had taken part in the revolution but were against the instauration of a clerical system of power. From that time on, the newspapers published in the country are expressions of different factions, but only within the limits and the ‘red lines’ of the Islamic Republic.
The power of the Supreme Leader – first Khomeini and now Khamenei – who has the final word on all matters regarding the State, reduces the powers of the government and the parliament as well as the media. In 2000 Khamenei forbade the reformists-dominated parliament to consider a new press bill meant to introduce more liberal rules, describing it as a threat to national security. The Leader controls also other centers of power that can prevent the government to implement policies. The result is that the presence of a reformist or moderate president does not guarantee more freedom for the press. It is true, for example, that during the first years of the government of the reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the country, and with it the media, lived a new season of relative freedom. Hundreds of new publications were licensed and the total circulation increased from 1.5m to 2.9m copies. People were standing in line in front of newsstands in the morning, waiting to see how far the newspapers would push in challenging the system. A symbolic figure of journalism of those days is Akbar Ganji, who on the newspaper Sobh-e Emrouz (Today’s Morning) published a series of articles accusing ministers of the previous governments of the killings of dozens of dissident writers and activists. But it was also during the presidency of Khatami that the judiciary started a crackdown on the media that led to the closure of dozens of them, after a speech by Khamenei in April 2000 in which the Supreme Leader had accused part of the press of having become “the base of the enemy.” Among the many journalists that were arrested there was Ganji, who was sentenced to six years in jail. The publisher of Sobh-e Emrouz, Said Hajjarian, a close ally of President Khatami, was shot in the head in full daylight in the center of Tehran, and as a consequence of his injuries remained semi-paralyzed.
The pressure on reformist newspapers, accompanied by the suspension of public funding for some of them, continued in the eight years of the ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Dozens of journalists were arrested and imprisoned following protests the June 2009 presidential election, and in August 2009, the office of the Association of Iranian Journalists was illegally closed and four member of the association’s board of directors, was arrested and imprisoned. Nearly 200 journalists were forced to leave the country due to security concerns, and press activities were severely censored and minimized.
After the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani, in 2013, only some restrictions have been loosened, with the reopening of part of these publications. But according to the reports of the United Nations on the situation of human rights in Iran, his administration has not yet been able to bring about a significant improvement in freedom of expression. This is in spite of the efforts for a reduction of the press restrictions advocated by the ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. According to a report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights, Ahmed Shaheed, submitted in September 2016, “at least 14 journalists and 15 bloggers and social media activists were reportedly either in detention or sentenced for their peaceful activities as of July 2016, and reports suggest that many others are subjected to interrogations, surveillance and other forms of harassment and intimidation.” In the following years, the situation of journalists has not changed much. In a recent report in August 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, Javid Rahman, expressed concern about the increased restrictions on freedom of expression and the violation of the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to fair trial in Iran, and that journalists continue to be harassed, arrested and detained.
With the newspapers used as catalysts and voices of the main factions, the journalists that work in the printed media often find themselves in the role of political activists. But the same happens in the news agencies, whose number has had an exponential growth in the last 15-20 years, since the different groups inside the system have resorted also to this kind of tools for their propaganda.
Iranian News Sources
Iranian-produced news and information sources run the gamut, from entertainment television to websites, blogs, and daily papers; TV and radio are by far the biggest source of information for Iranians, although about one-third of Iran’s 70 million people have access to the Internet. News outlets with a reformist or liberal slant came under increased censorship during the first term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, analysts say, while conservative or state-controlled publications proliferated. The main media organizations include:
Newspapers: There are as many as three hundred newspapers in Iran, but only a dozen major national dailies. Like their weekly cousins, these papers are typically funded by and ideologically connected to political parties or politicians (newspapers also receive government subsidies and generate ad revenue). Most are of a conservative tilt. Fairbanks says all of Iran’s domestic newspapers, “every last one of them,” are affiliated with a specific faction or individual. The most widely circulated conservative papers include Kayhan, which is owned by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; Resalat, closely connected with Iran’s Bazaar merchants; Iran, the right-wing official government paper; Jomhouri Eslami (The Islamic Republic), whose first license holder was Ayatollah Khamenei; and Jaam-e Jam, the nation’s largest non-sports daily (450,000), which is published by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting organization. Reformist papers include E’temaad (Trust), published in Tehran and licensed to the Majlis deputy from Rasht, Elias Hazrati; and Etemad-e-Meli, a national daily owned by 2009 presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi. The Iranian government also publishes three English-language papers, Tehran Times; Iran Daily; Iran News.
Broadcasting: Iran’s constitution mandates complete control over television and radio broadcasting, and organizational heads are appointed by the supreme leader; there are no private or independent broadcasters inside Iran. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) controls all internal and external broadcasting. State-controlled television airs nationally and internationally, and is also streamed online. The broadcaster operates dozens of provincial, national, and foreign networks airing programs on culture, science, news, and other subjects. During the recent presidential campaign, challengers accused Ahmadinejad of having an unfair advantage over television airtime, and Fairbanks says the complaints ultimately prompted the broadcaster to air a series of live debates between the candidates. “People saw Ahmadinejad being criticized openly for the first time,” Fairbanks says, adding: “I don’t think you’ll see that return to television for quite a while now.” Indeed, post-election censorship continues. The Friday prayer sermon delivered by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on July 17, 2009, for instance, was not aired on official state television as is customary (Foreign Policy). IRIB also controls and produces official state radio, operating dozens of stations domestically and internationally in over thirty languages.
News services: The official Iranian news service, the Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, was established in 1934, and is controlled and operated by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Additionally, semi-official news agencies operate, allegedly independently of government control, but are often seen by analysts as touting the agendas of various government agencies. These services include the FARS News Agency (which functions as a judiciary surrogate, observers say); the Mehr news agency (considered close to the culture and Islamic guidance ministry); the Iranian Student News Agency, launched in 1999 and partially state funded; and ILNA, the Iranian Labor News Agency, which has been reporting on the country’s workforce since 2003.
Online News: Numerous pro-government and reformist websites offer news, analysis, and commentary, although many have been banned or blocked in recent years for publishing reports deemed hostile to the regime. Sites still functioning include Aftab News, headed by former President Rafsanjani; Tehran Tabnak, a conservative website that replaced the banned Baztab and is believed to be associated with former Revolutionary Guard commander and 2009 presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei; and Mashhad Qods, website of conservative Mashhad daily published by the Qods Cultural Foundation of the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza; and Sharif News, a hard-line news site associated with basij (paramilitary) students in Tehran.
Western Based Media
For decades, Western governments have sought to counter Iran’s heavily censored domestic media by beaming in their own broadcasts. Although satellite dishes are illegal, they proliferate in many cities, allowing Iranians to tune into foreign-funded broadcasts in large numbers (though in July 2009 Iranian officials renewed vows to confiscate illegal dishes). The U.S. government funds two broadcast services: Voice of America’s Persian News Network (PNN), a seven-hour block of original programming, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Radio Farda, broadcasting Iran-specific news and programming around the clock. Farda also runs an extensive Persian-language website. The U.S. State Department estimates that one in four Iranian adults watch PNN broadcasts weekly, while Radio Farda “has the highest weekly reach rate” of any international radio broadcaster in the country, says the U.S. Board of Broadcasting Governors. Both reported huge audience surges in the aftermath of the presidential elections–despite Iranian attempts to jam signals–along with Britain’s BBC Persian-language television, which drew intense criticism from Iranian officials for its programming. Analysts say the BBC’s service has wide reach: As many as eight million viewers regularly tune in to the eight hours of daily programming. BBC’s Persian radio service, meanwhile, airs twenty hours of programming daily.
Beyond radio and television, many foreign governments fund Persian news sites, including France’s Radio France International (which Iranian authorities have attempted to block), Germany’s Deutsche Welle Persian service, the Dutch-funded radio-website Zamaneh, launched in 2005, and Britain’s BBC Persian (launched in May 2001).
Congressional support for U.S.-funded broadcasting to Iran has remained steady in recent years. In fiscal year 2008, $33.6 million was appropriated for Iran broadcasting and included $8.1 million for Radio Farda, and $20 million for PNN, the Congressional Research Service reports (PDF). Analysts expect funding for radio and TV programming to continue. Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs for the research service, says American broadcasters have for the most part bent over backward to offer neutral, unbiased reporting on international affairs for their Iranian audiences. “There is not a dramatic slant” to U.S. broadcasting in Iran, Katzman says. “It’s not what I think some Iranian officials allege it is–an effort to stir up people against the regime and get people out on the streets protesting.”
The expulsion of foreign journalists and the mass arrest of domestic reporters following the disputed presidential election of June 2009 raise new questions about the flow of information to and from Iran. Some experts say the repressive reporting climate, especially restrictions aimed at liberal news outlets, has been escalating for years. The Committee to Protect Journalists, for instance, estimates President Ahmadinejad has cut subsidies to some reformist papers by upwards of 60 percent since taking office in 2005. Other observers note that independent media in Iran continues to occupy an important space in internal power dynamics, especially given the genuine lack of political discourse on state-controlled radio and television (most Iranians do not read newspapers, for instance). During his Friday prayer sermon in July 2009, Rafsanjani called on the government to roll back press restrictions so journalists can “work within the framework of the law” to foster “a calm, open, critical, or even confirming atmosphere.” Shaul Bakhash, an Iran expert at George Mason University, says while discussion in the mainstream media has been restricted, dissent continues online. Opposition presidential candidates, for instance, have been able to “make their views known on their websites,” which were not shut down by Iranian authorities after the June 2009 vote.
New forms of journalism are also seeking to crack the firewall; media blogs and social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube became vital sources of information inside and outside Iran during the 2009 election crisis. Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society estimates there are as many as sixty thousand Persian-language blogs (PDF) that are regularly updated, serving up a diverse mix of views, from conservative and religious to secular and reformist. But journalism experts caution that so-called new media cannot replace traditional forms of reporting. While roughly one-third of Iranians have access to the Internet, sites are often blocked by Iranian censors and penalties for reading or posting to unapproved blogs can be severe.
Fairbanks, for one, is optimistic that traditional Iranian journalists will find creative ways “to get around press restrictions.” Iranian journalists have rebounded from press crackdowns in the past, “sometimes protected by powerful backers within the country’s factionalized political system,” and will do so again, he says. But others aren’t so sure. Dollet, of Reporters Without Borders, says Iranian journalists are increasingly worried about their safety; many have gone into hiding and remain fearful they will be detained if they surface.