Majalla – London
As protests in Iran stretched into their second week, Iran’s official and semi-official media continues to have limited coverage of the protests. The Iranian authorities have also continued to restrict access to social media platforms that have become powerful tools for political organisation in Iran and key sources of information to anti-government demonstrators.
The widely used messaging app Telegram was blocked throughout the country on December 31 and is now facing a permanent ban. Monthly, some 40 million Iranians, half of the population, use the encrypted messaging app to talk to each other away from the prying eyes of their government. Access to other social media apps like Instagram has also been intermittent and internet access was sporadically cut off in several cities where protests erupted.
Social media and messaging apps have played a crucial role in organizing and directing anti-government protests around the world. Not surprisingly, when responding to protests, cracking down on access to such platforms has become as important to some governments as the presence of the police.
Many social media platforms have long been inaccessible in Iran. Twitter and Facebook were banned in 2009, although many Iranians use software that enables them access. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, even opened his own Facebook account.
When Iranians took to the streets in 2009, in protests known as the Green Revolution, the social media age was still its infancy and roughly one million Iranians had smartphones. Today, that reach has exponentially magnified with more than half the population using smartphones.
The state of the Iranian media landscape can serve as a bellwether for understanding where the country is headed. In the past, the restrictions under which Iranian journalists had to operate fluctuated as the political fortunes of conservatives and reformists shifted.
When reformist president Mohammad Khatami entered office in 1997 with a promise of “dialogue of civilizations,” journalists inside the country took advantage of the less restrictive environment to address new and controversial topics. But a few short years later, when a conservative backlash occurred, reformist newspapers were closed down and Khatami’s ministers were pressured into resigning. Western leaders soon realized that the “dialogue of civilizations” would remain only a slogan.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration was in the opposite camp in 2005 in that it worked in tandem with the security forces to close newspapers and arrest political activists. But in his second term, when Ahmadinejad clashed with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, one of the first victims of the government crackdown was his media adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who was arrested and jailed after making critical remarks about the Islamic Republic’s dress codes for women. His fall from power was so steep that Ahmadinejad was refused permission to visit him in prison.
The situation has not significantly improved since the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, who presented himself as a “moderate”. In fact, journalists in recent years have become victims of the tensions between the “moderate” faction of the Iranian establishment and powerful hard-liners who control key law enforcement institutions, with the latter asserting their authority by bringing cases against reporters on national security grounds. For example, four journalists who had been arrested by the IRGC’s intelligence unit in November 2015 received sentences of up to two years in prison after appeals in 2016; at least two of them engaged in hunger strikes while in detention.
WHO HOLDS THE REIGNS?
The press in Iran is closely supervised by the government, under the overall purview of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The Minister of Culture is appointed by the president and must be approved by Iran’s parliament. Given the sensitive role he or she plays, it is generally understood that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has to, at the very least, have no objections to the individual selected.
Decisions to permit or ban publications are made through the Culture Ministry’s Press Supervisory Board, which includes representatives of the judiciary, parliament, Minister of Science, Supreme Council of Qom Seminary and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution as well as Ministry of Culture staff. Besides the Press Supervisory Board, Iranian journalists must also contend with the judiciary’s Press Court, which can and does make decisions independent of the Culture Ministry.
The closure of a reformist daily newspaper Bahar in October 2013 led Iranian journalists to question how committed the administration of “moderate” Hassan Rouhani is to keeping to his campaign promises of delivering greater freedom for the long-fettered press. The newpaper published an article by the well-known religious–nationalist activist Asghar Gharavi, who was perceived to be questioning the principles of Shi’a Islam.
In June 2016, the judiciary shuttered the reformist newspaper Ghanoon in response to complaints about critical coverage from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The paper, one of several outlets to suffer suspension or blocking in 2016, was banned to “prevent a crime,” after the paper was accused of “publishing falsehood with the intent to cause disrupt in public opinion.”
Constitutional provisions and laws restrict what can be covered in the media and fail to provide protections for journalists. The authorities regularly invoke vaguely worded laws to criminalize dissenting opinions. Article 24 of the constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but with a broad exception for content that is deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” Article 500 of the penal code states that anyone who undertakes any form of propaganda against the state will be sentenced to between three months and a year in prison, but the code leaves “propaganda” undefined. Under Article 513, certain offenses deemed to be an “insult” to religion are punishable by death, or prison terms of one to five years for lesser offenses, with “insult” similarly undefined. In 2010, the government broadened the definition of the crime of moharebeh, or “enmity against God,” in order to convict activists and journalists. (Reporters Without Borders)
Some of the regime’s victims include Ehsan Mazandarani, the managing editor of the reformist newspaper Farhikhtegan, who was arrested on November 2, 2015 by intelligence agents of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and taken to Evin Prison. In April 2016, Mazandarani was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security” and “spreading propaganda against the regime.” He was released in February 2017, but then re-arrested a month later, and finally released again on October 31, 2017. He suffered a heart attack while in prison, as well as lung, kidney, and intestinal problems. Authorities have also banned him from practicing journalism.
In March of 2017, IRGC security forces arrested Morad Saghafi, the reformist editor-in-chief of Goftegoo magazine. In a speech at a seminar on local affairs, Mr. Saghafi criticized the “unchecked powers” of Iranian officials and accused local authorities of running Tehran in a “corrupt and dictatorial” manner. Revolutionary Guards also arrested seven administrators of 12 reformist-aligned news channels with hundreds of thousands of followers on the popular Telegram messaging application. In June, six of the jailed administrators started a hunger strike in Evin Prison to protest their prolonged detention without access to legal counsel.
Iran also restricts visas for foreign reporters and assigns “translators” to those who visit, to monitor their every word. Fearful of regular round-ups, many Iranian journalists have fled to Europe. But the regime has pursued them into exile. In 2017, it ordered the seizure of the Iranian assets of 152 contributors to the BBC Persian service, which has an audience of 13 million Iranians. And it is not just BBC Persian employees who are targeted. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), all international media outlets with Persian-language services are concerned, regardless of the country in which the media are based. A report by RSF said, “Journalists with Radio Farda (Radio Free Europe’s Persian-language section), with such state-funded broadcasters as Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and Radio France Internationale, and privately-owned broadcasters such as Manoto TV and Radio Zamaneh have also been threatened by Iran’s intelligence services or judicial system. The pressure is sufficiently intimidating that most of the journalists and media representatives contacted by RSF asked not to be identified. Radio Farda director Arman Mostofi said four of his station’s journalists have been the targets of a total of about ten death threats, all of them anonymous.”
RSF also reports that harassment of families is a constant threat and that spouses often encounter problems when visiting Iran. “Many have had their passports confiscated on arrival and, to recover them, they have had to go to the intelligence ministry, where they are typically questioned about their partner’s work, their relationship and ometimes their private life.”
According to Freedom of the Press, an annual report by Freedom House on media independence around the world, bloggers and online activists face many of the same legal repercussions for their work as do professional journalists. The report said that the Judiciary “frequently denies accused journalists and bloggers due process by referring their cases to the Revolutionary Courts, which generally feature closed-door hearings and denial of access to an attorney. Political cartoonists and satirists are also frequently targeted by authorities.”
IRAN’S MEDIA LANDSCAPE
Iranian media can be divided into four distinct categories: print, including newspapers, weeklies and monthlies; news agencies; websites, which are often affiliated to political figures or institutions; and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation, a kind of Iranian BBC whose director is chosen directly by the Supreme Leader. Aside from television, most people get their news from a dozen or so major newspapers or the country’s news agencies.
Established in 1943, Kayhan is one of the oldest newspapers in Iran, and it is perhaps the most well-known conservative paper. Its editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, was appointed directly by the Supreme Leader. For this reason, Kayhan is often referred to as Khamenei’s “stenographer” or “mouthpiece.” Shariatmadari’s personal closeness and access to the Supreme Leader and the security agencies makes him a unique figure in the Iranian media. His acerbic op-eds can be viewed as a throwback to 1980s Iran—a time when there was a deep distrust of the US and the West, and when those inside the country who appeared to be sympathetic to them were accused of acting as “fifth columnists” for US and Western conspiracies.
Shariatmadari’s editorials are often republished on hardline and conservative websites. Though it does not have a high or popular readership, Kayhan is distributed to government offices and is a go-to source for journalists and analysts who view Shariatmadari’s position on current events as pivotal to understanding Iran’s powerful and influential ultra-conservative faction.
On the opposite political spectrum of Kayhan is Shargh Daily. At the moment it is the most popular reformist newspaper. While there are a handful of other reformist newspapers that produce consistently good work, such as Etemaad, Ebtekar, Aftab-e Yazd, Arman, Shargh stands out as one of the few newspapers conducting investigative reporting and landing big interviews. In September 2016, Sadra Mohaghegh, an editor of the reformist daily Shargh, was arrested by security agents. The charges against him were unclear, but he was later released on bail. Pro-government news agencies claimed that he had been arrested for working with “counterrevolutionary” media.
Most newspapers in Iran rely a great deal on the news agencies, such as Fars News Agency, Iranians Students’ News Agency, Mehr News Agency, Iranian Labor News Agency, and Islamic Republic News Agency. Papers typically select a handful of quotes from the news agency transcripts and weave together a short article. More ambitious writers will sometimes seek out another source to balance the article. The usual pattern, however, is to compress news agency interviews and transcripts to make them palatable for the readers of their paper.
Shargh consistently seeks out new stories, compiles unique reports and conducts extensive interviews with individuals who are typically ignored by the news agencies. However, they are not alone. Reformist newspapers are generally the only publications to cover issues that are considered taboo or off-limits by political hardliners or the religious conservative type.
Another aspect that sets Shargh apart in Iranian media is its social media presence. Of all the Iranian newspapers, it has the most active and up-to-date Twitter account. They tweet not only their articles, but also breaking news from the news agencies and breaking international news in both Persian and English. Among the social media platforms, Twitter was slow to catch on among Iranian users, and remains blocked by Iranian internet censors, even though President Rouhani, among others, has an official account. Shargh has been one of the more popular users of the medium among Iranian users – who can get round the restrictions using privacy software.
Reformist journalism in Iran should not necessarily be confused with “objective” journalism, however. All of them enthusiastically support Rouhani’s administration.
Nearly a month before the November interim nuclear deal in 2013 was announced, reformist daily Arman, working on the news that US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif had met, published a drawing of the two shaking hands on their front page. And Aseman daily, which was under the leadership of a former Shargh editor, had on their very first issue a picture of Rouhani with the headline “Rouhani is not alone.” Perhaps not so coincidentally, Aseman was closed on the orders of the judiciary after just six issues for printing a quote that called qisas (Islamic retribution law) “inhuman”. In what can only be viewed as an ominous sign, the Culture Minister at the time, Ali Jannati, said that the Ministry was not involved in the decision.
Just as reformist papers seek out interviews with individuals aligned with their political views, conservative newspapers, when not republishing condensed versions of news agency reports, seek stories aligned to their political ideology. Of the handful of the more popular newspapers, Javan, Resaalat, Etelaat, Quds, Jomhouri Islami and Javan can be considered the most hardline, while Jomhouri-e Islami and Quds are center-Right.
On February 16 2014, two days before the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 were to resume, Javan had a very extensive article entitled “Negotiations, Threats, and now Interference.” The article outlined four steps it said the US would pursue in regard to the nuclear negotiations: the incremental suspension of Iran’s nuclear abilities, issuing military threats against Iran, attempts to humiliate Iran and, finally, interference in Iran’s domestic affairs. The perception that concessions in the nuclear negotiations would eventually lead to concessions on domestic issues that would lead to fundamental changes in the identity of the Islamic Republic is a predominant concern among hardliners in Iran. It is no surprise, then, that Javan is believed to be politically aligned with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or that its managing director, Abdullah Ganji, was the deputy head of the Student Basij.
However, such a strong editorial line cannot be seen with Ettelaat—which, after over 90 years in print, is Iran’s oldest active newspaper— Resalaat or Jomhouri-e Islami. All three newspapers, which have had long-serving editors, serve as a good source of information for those interested in understanding the concerns and focus of attention of conservatives in Iran. Their articles are typically straightforward and have a strong focus on statements by conservative officials. Only rarely do they run articles that create a great deal of noise or controversy.
ODD MEN OUT
In between the reformist and conservative papers there are other popular newspapers that do not necessarily fit into either category.
The presidency has its own newspaper, known simply as Iran, which is the official newspaper of the administration. It was founded in 1995, and as presidents and their administrations come and go its focus and slant changes as well. Its affiliated website is Shabeke Iran (Iran Network) and it operates under the Islamic Republic News Agency. It can be considered the “official mouthpiece” of each administration.
Tehran Municipality’s Hamshahri is one of the more popular newspapers in Iran. Most of its reports are brief, and given that it operates under Tehran municipality, it covers a great deal of Tehran-related news. This paper, however, should not be confused with the official paper launched by Tehran’s former mayor, Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf: Tehran-e Emrooz.
Jaam-e Jam is also a popular newspaper in Iran. It operates under the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Given that the head of IRIB is chosen by the Supreme Leader and that the position typically goes to someone with more conservative views, it seems logical that Jaam-e Jam has a more conservative slant.
Iran has four major English-language newspapers: Kayhan International, which belongs to Kayhan; Tehran Times, which operates under the Mehr News Agency; Iran Daily, the English edition of the presidency’s Iran, and Iran News.