The Media Landscape in Iran

The crisis following Iran’s presidential vote cast a new light on the country’s hotly contested media space. A crackdown has limited independent reporting but other sources remain as channels for dissent.

July 22, 2009

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Iranian authorities have reinforced controls on major domestic media following the upheaval over contested presidential election results in June 2009. One month after the disputed vote, nearly forty journalists remained in Iranian prisons. 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 decade; 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.

An Oscillating Press Policy

Even before the June 2009 crackdown, media in Iran was regulated by a series of laws governing print, online, and broadcast content. Article 24 of the Iranian constitution holds that while "publications and the press have freedom of expression," it is unlawful to express views that are "detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public." The press law of 1986 (updated in 2000) details specific red lines, like "promoting subjects which might damage the foundation of the Islamic Republic," "offending the Leader of the Revolution and recognized religious authorities," and "propagating luxury and extravagance." Violators face months of jail time, fines, even lashings, punishments deemed excessive by many Western observers. OpenNet Initiative, an academic research project that studies Internet filtering, says the Iranian press legislation is unusual (PDF) "in that it not only describes restricted speech but also lays out normative objectives for the press, who are required to ’propagate and promote genuine Islamic culture and sound ethical principles.’"

Iranian journalists have rebounded from press crackdowns in the past, "sometimes protected by powerful backers within the country’s factionalized political system." – Stephen C. Fairbanks, former director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Persian service

In practice, Iranian press freedoms have fluctuated over time. The surprise presidential election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997 brought a celebrated, if short-lived, relaxation in press restrictions. Soazig Dollet, a researcher on North Africa and the Middle East for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, says Khatami’s victory was followed by an explosion of reformist newspapers, and reporters were given greater latitude to cover sometimes controversial state matters. But in April 2000, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei began a coordinated crackdown on reformist media, accusing liberal newspapers of serving as the base of enemies (specifically the United States and Israel) and fomenting anti-Iranian rhetoric. Dozens of newspapers and newsweeklies were subsequently shuttered, their staffs jailed.

Overstepping Iran’s established press rules, intentionally or otherwise, continues to draw harsh retribution from the Iranian state. A 2007 assessment of Iranian media (PDF) by BBC Monitoring found that Tehran’s press courts appear to be focusing legal action against individual journalists and executives, "rather than closing down publications completely." Dozens of publications--principally reformist leaning--have been shuttered since 2000. And in May 2009 Freedom House ranked Iran 181 out of 195 countries for media openness (PDF)--tied with China and Rwanda, and below Syria, Sudan, and Somalia.

But Stephen C. Fairbanks, a former State Department analyst on Iran and past director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Persian service, says Iran’s press policies, while restrictive compared to Western norms, are "certainly not draconian." Even after the June 2009 election crisis, Fairbanks says some level of government criticism has been tolerated, especially in conservative publications. And, he adds, old taboos like the idea of "having relations with the United States," a forbidden topic in the 1990s, have eroded since the election of Barack Obama, who has talked repeatedly of direct diplomatic negotiations with Iran.

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.

U.S.-funded broadcasting into Iran is "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." – Kenneth Katzman, Congressional Research Service

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 Sources

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.

Crisis Guide: Iran 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."

Media After the Uprising

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.