Between Self-censorship and Repression

Mass media in Iran are subjected to censorship and the tyranny of state control. Journalists who refuse to toe the line and follow the official ideology have to be prepared to suffer severe repression – or to flee abroad. By Asghar Schirazi

Iranian newspapers (photo: DW)
The Iranian constitution guarantees the freedom of the press, but this is only on condition that it does not contradict "the principles of Islam"

​​Even the Islamic Republic's constitution leaves no doubt that Iran has a state ideology which has little to do with the basic values of democratic republican forms of state, being based solely on the rule of God. Such an approach to politics is enough to make clear that the idea of the freedom of the media finds little understanding.

The constitution does indeed speak of "basic freedoms," among which it includes the freedom of the press (Article 24), but this is only on condition that it does not contradict "the principles of Islam."

In theory, this condition also provides the justification for the repression of any spoken or written word which does not conform to the approach to Islam taken by the ruling fundamentalists. What this means in practice can be seen from the way the Islamic Republic's relationship with the press and other mass media has developed since the revolution.

Mass media in the grip of the state

Radio and television stations were put under the control of the new state immediately after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. But it took until the summer of 1981 before the last opposition newspaper had to cease publication. Directly after the revolution there were 444 different newspapers and magazines being published. By 1988, the number had gone down to 121, and they were without exception fully supportive of the regime.

Under the influence of the reformist policies followed by the government of Ayatollah Rafsanjani after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the pressure on the media was initially relaxed. By 1992, there were 369 publications. As a result of the pressure of radical forces on the government, this process was interrupted for a time, but liberalisation resumed after the election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in 1997.

But this time too, radical Islamist tendencies were able to stop this relative liberalisation. Between 2000 and the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency as Khatami's successor in 2005, over one hundred newspapers and magazines were banned.

The pressure grew under the new president: between April 2006 and April 2007 alone, another 34 newspapers and magazines were banned. That has left just a few newspapers published by the right wing of the reform movement, and they have to submit to strict censorship.

Powerlessness of those in the media

The publishers and journalists do not have much with which they can respond to the massive pressure under which they are placed. In early 2001, a Journalists' Association was founded, but it has been able to do little more than issue protest statements.

photo: AP
The editorial team of Shargh, or East, at their newspaper's office. In 2006, Iran closed down this prominent reformist daily

​​Under these conditions, journalists who do not want to submit to self-censorship but who still want to publish their views have to reckon with negative consequences, such as legal action, imprisonment and large fines. The other option is to escape abroad. Some journalists have succeeded in re-establishing contact with their readership via the internet.

Indeed, many escape the rigid press laws by escaping into the internet. They set up websites from which they try to reach their public with information and commentary.

Control over online media

As was to be expected, the government has reacted to these attempts by blocking and filtering websites and internet service providers. It has closed down individual internet cafés and punished their operators. Some have been forced to make public confession of their alleged "offences."

In a law passed in November 2001, every private internet service provider has to have state approval. Such approval is only given to those providers who permit the authorities to install filters for web-pages and e-mails.

After that, users can only register with internet service providers if their personal details and their IP addresses are sent to the ministry for information and communication technology. Only after the authorities have given their approval and the customer has signed a commitment not to visit any "Islamic" sites, can a contract be signed.

(photo: AP)
This cartoon was the reason for the closure of the Shargh newspaper. It deals with the country's controversial nuclear program, depicting a donkey representing the Iranian government. Donkeys in Iranian culture represent a man who is unintelligent

​​In addition, operators of internet cafés have to note down the personal details, times of use and IP addresses of their customers so that the authorities can find out who visited which internet sites at any specific time. If providers do not keep these rules, they can expect at the least to have their premises closed down.

Further measures to oversee the use of the internet followed in the following years. In 2004, a commission was set up to oversee Iranian internet sites; the commission has the power to close down specific sites. Towards the end of 2006, the Ministry for Islamic Leadership ("Overshadow") required the operators of internet sites to register within two months. Those who failed to do so were threatened with the filtering of their sites.

Weblogs as an alternative solution?

These measures have prevented many web site operators from spreading information and opinion via the internet, but they still have the possibility of using web logs. These internet diaries have many advantages for the user: they are easy to set up, cost nothing, allow the writer to remain anonymous and are thus harder to control than normal websites.

This technology is of course not only available to be used by journalists but can be used by anyone, especially by the young. And the extent to which this possibility is being taken up by the younger generation can be seen from the impressive number of active Persian-language web logs. In 2006 it was estimated that there were between 75,000 and 100,000 of them.

The content of these websites and blogs is very varied. They often deal with taboo topics, including information about politics, sex, philosophy, women, literature, music, books as well as personal issues and complaints--the variety itself is a way of breaking the monopoly on information held by the country's rulers.

But it is not so clear how far this development is helping to nurture democracy in the country. The less the bloggers engage in monologues, the more they bring up socially relevant topics for discussion, and thus encourage communication between various views, the more their contribution towards building democracy can be regarded as positive.

But one also has to bear in mind that the internet is not only used by friends of democracy, but also by its enemies, such as the ruling fundamentalists.

Asghar Schirazi

© 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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