"Why are they afraid of the press?" Photo by
The battle for freedom of the press
By Azadeh Hamehdoni
June 29, 2000
A summary of a study by Azadeh Hamedoni titled "A
look into the Print Media in Iran". Hamedoni has a masters degree
in broadcast and print journalism from the University of California, Berkeley.
Iran is a country being revolutionized through the print media. The
deep transformations began three years ago when Mohammad Khatami was elected
president. Since then there has been an emergence of many new liberal newspapers
fighting for freedom. Newspapers are taking a stance that has rarely been
seen since the 1979 revolution. The liberal press is helping millions of
young Iranians stand up against religious dictatorship and push for democracy.
Since the completion of this study, at least 19 reformist publications
have been banned or suspended. Many journalists have been summoned to appear
in court and many others taken to Tehran's Evin prison for allegedly questioning
Islamic principles or undermining the revolution. As a result of the crackdown,
there are now more than 1,000 journalists out of work.
Reformist-minded lawmakers who have a clear majority in the new parliament,
have said lifting press restrictions is a priority. Without a reversal
of the press law passed in the last days of the previous parliament, the
reformists have little power to a make democratic changes. With state radio
and TV in the hands of the conservative establishment, the press is the
only avenue of communication with the masses who strongly back the reformist
For years Iran has been a battle ground for radicals and conservatives.
The struggle has manifested itself primarily in the pages of the country's
newspapers, especially since Mohammad Khatami's election. His rise to power
was important firstly because he is a moderate politician who wants to
bring about change for the people of Iran. Secondly, Khatami was elected
with 70 percent of the vote, demonstrating the people's strong desire for
During the Shah's reign many papers
were "privately owned, but the press operated under state surveillance
in the classic authoritarian model, and there was little to choose from
among the dull dailies of Tehran" (1 ). But shortly
before the 1979 revolution, in "from October 15 to November 6 ,
a unique period in Iranian media history was enjoyed as media content was
perhaps for the first time guided by professional standards and social
commitments rather than by heavy-handed control from above or outside"
After the fall of the monarchy, Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini quickly took control. In August 1979, the independent press, which
had already been a target attacks by the government and Islamic fanatics,
were largely silenced. "Of the 444 newspapers and magazines that had
appeared during the first year after the revolution, less than a half remained
a few years later. In 1981 alone, 175 newspapers were shut down. By March
of 1988, the total number of newspapers and periodicals published in Iran
was no more than 121. These were without exception loyal to the regime"
After Khomeini's death in 1989, pressures against the
press were reduced to some extent. There was a visible rise in the number
of newspapers from 102 in 1988 to 369 in 1993. Today in Iran, there are
close to 200 newspapers. This large number, coupled with the literacy rate
(90 percent) has engaged Iranians in the media. Still, the "scope
of permissible dissent or criticism is extremely narrow and limited to
partisans of the ruling movement" (4).
When Khomeini was in power, two laws restricted freedoms of
the press. The first was passed shortly after the revolution in 1979 by
the Revolutionary Council, which made it necessary for a publication to
obtain a permit providing authority to publish, but only within the boundaries
of Islamic law. The second law, approved by parliament in 1986, gave the
official press commission powers of supervision over the press.
These laws provided the state with complete control over what could
be published in the print media. The first law was aimed mainly at ensuring
the press support Islamic culture and government policies, which included
rejecting the West (mainly the U.S.) and East (then Soviet Union). The
second law had numerous inclusions based on Islamic principles that the
media had to abide by and also had a specific section forbidding the press
from "stirring up conflict" among the population.
These laws made it very difficult for the press to
criticize any political or social subjects in Iran and in-turn caused the
press to practice self-censorship. But the self-censorship practiced by
many papers in the 1980s began to change as the 90s approached. The liberal
press began to reflect pent-up frustrations and even hatred toward the
religious regime. "This country is strange because you can express
yourself, you can write articles in the newspaper now, but they (the government)
are free to arrest you. Everyone has their own freedom, you can write and
they can arrest you. It's strange now," according to an Iranian observer
The confusion arises from Iran's own government. Iranians are allowed
surprising access to the press. Publications are largely in the hands of
the people, while radio and television are owned and operated by the conservative-dominated
faction within the state. Why the government allows people to express their
views on paper but not speak up in radio or television is unclear. The
freedom to write is an unexpected phenomenon given the controlling tendency
of the religious dictatorship.
"By regional standards, the government allows
its domestic critics some freedom of expression, albeit only within narrow
limits. The radical press, Salam, Bayan, Jahan-e Islam
and Payame-Daneshju-ye Basiji, for example, voice harsh criticism
of the clerical regime" (6). Still there are certain
limits, as evidenced by the fact that all the mentioned newspapers have
been suspended. If a reporter writes a story that even appears to threaten
the government or challenge the principles of Islam, the writer can be
thrown into jail. Case in point is the jailed journalist Akbar Gangi whose
exposé embarrassed top officials, including the powerful former
president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Signs of openness should not be mistaken
for genuine freedom of the press because "freedoms are allowed only
as long as the inviolability of Islamic tenets, the irreversibility of
the revolution, and the absolute sovereignty of the faqih (Islamic law)
are not questioned" (7). Part of the Islamic tenets
are that the "causes of decline and underdevelopment in countries
such as Iran can be found in the Western military, economic, political
and particularly cultural campaigns against the Islamic world" (8). This means any writings that support the West are in
violation of the Islamic tenets, and can have jail time for the violators.
The tenets, believed by all members of Iran's religious government,
are often used when prosecuting members of the press in court. The boundary
lines between what is permissible in a newspaper and what is forbidden
have never been established and laws are applied selectively and inconsistently.
Many times a reporter will report on the benefits of a relationship with
the West and not be arrested. Then another reporter may write a similar
story, along the same lines, and be arrested for violating an Islamic tenet.
There are no consistent rules and their implementation is erratic.
These inconsistencies in control have opened the door for daring publishers
to take chances. Salam printed a former intelligence officer's plan that
suggested a coordinated strategy to silence reformist newspapers and writers.
Salam was ordered shut down. But this led to student riots in Tehran and
several other cities in July 1999 -- the biggest anti-establishment protests
since the revolution.
From the Pahlavi dynasty to the Islamic
government of today, there has been constant control and regulation of
the print media. The controls are sometimes loose and other times as strict
as possible. This loose structure has given newspapers the opportunity
to challenge different governments at different times. While the current
government believes "that common Iranians are naive and need clerics
to act as guardians to steer them in life" (9), liberal
newspapers are pushing forward with the regime's worst fear "that
Islam is compatible with democracy, and that the peoples' participation
in government is their divine and natural right, not something reserved
for the political, and increasingly nepotistic elite" (10).
The newspapers are indeed a challenge to the Islamic Republic. The judiciary
uses its power to shut down reformist newspapers. But every time it seems
like-minded newspapers spring up come back under a new name. Hamid Reza
Jalaeipour, had been a veteran at this game. At least four of his newspapers
were ordered closed (Jame'eh, Toos, Neshat and Asr-e
Azadegan). "They stopped our newspaper, Neshat, after that
we opened two newspapers. And, maybe, if they stop our newspaper again,
then maybe, in the near future they will see four of our reform newspapers,"
Jalaeipour said. For now, none of Jalaeipour's newspapers are allowed to
print, but there are others that follow the same reformist line.
Khordad was another paper that re-emerged after being shutdown.
Khordad, published by Abdollah Nouri, was one of Iran's most popular
dailies and the country's most outspoken advocate of reform. Nouri was
a former senior official at the sate radio and television organization
who joined Khatami's cabinet as interior minister until he was impeached
by the conservative-led parliament.
Nouri was named as the top candidate on the reformist
ticket for the February 2000 elections and was widely expected to become
the next speaker of the parliament. But he was stopped from running for
office when he was arrested and charged with "dishonoring" Ayatollah
Khomeini, "undermining the authority" of Iran's ruling clergy
and "promoting" relations with the U.S. All the charges were
based on articles in his daily Khordad. Before Nouri was sentenced,
he told Time magazine, "the court is trying to get rid of me, but
the trial is really a trial of the reform movement" (11).
Nouri's trial itself turned into a story for the press. Nouri used the
court proceedings to make speeches challenging the conservative establishment.
"The revolution happened for freedom for all. Do our press, students
and intellectuals feel secure enough to criticize officials?" asked
Nouri at his sentencing on Nov. 27, 1999. "As long as I am able to
talk, I will defend the fundamental rights of people". Nouri was sentenced
to five years in prison. He was also denied a right to give a closing argument.
Still, a private publisher printed Nouri's arguments in court which become
one of Iran's best-selling books in years.
The liberal press has been put on trial numerous times. There are many
stories to tell. As the battle for freedom of the press heats up, it becomes
more difficult to publish. For every publisher and editor who goes to trial
there is a lawyer behind him. Each of these people and their families are
risking it all to challenge the conservatives. For example, the editor-in-chief
of the prominent daily Asr-e Azadegan, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin,
who was arrested and charged with spreading "falsehoods". His
bail was set at $160,000, which is an huge amount in Iran. "This bail
is equal to blood money of five people," said Shamsolvaezin during
the first court session. "Am I a murderer? This is not a trial of
my offense This is an inquisition".
To deal with bold journalists like Shamsolvaezin,
the hard-liners are becoming more and more aggressive in using the courts
to silence them. "Before they would take the license holder of a newspaper
or magazine responsible to jail, but now they are arresting editors-in-chief,
writers and even their lawyers," said Jalaeipour. "The suppression
of freedom in general and of an opposition press in particular cannot be
maintained in the long run. Independent intellectuals find other ways to
communicate with the public and to promote their views. They do not disappear
when they face suppression, but simply wait for the next opportunity to
make themselves noticed" (12).
IMPACT OF NEWSPAPERS
The July 1999 riots raise the issue of newspapers and their impact on
society. The passionate belief in the newspapers' right to print freely
is what has made the young people come forward and challenge the conservative
establishment. Newspapers have popular support on their side -- so much
so that what is printed in newspapers often leaves an impact on the government.
The role of the independent press has been to inform the public of political
and social issues. Although newspapers pay a high price for their bold
articles, in the end they seem to believe that it is worth it and they
are making a difference. When Christiane Amanpour interviewed Neshat's
publisher, Jalaeipour, she asked him about the role of the independent
press. In his reply, Jalaeipour spoke about the chain murders of dissident
writers and politicians in late 1988. "They killed four people, but
they couldn't continue because of the press." Amanpour then asked,
"The press alone stopped the killings?" Jalaeipour responded,
"Yes, because they were able to mobilize the public opinion."
The press has kept many people from being killed by informing the public
and making the government accountable not just before God, but also before
the Iranian people. The papers have the public's support to help institute
changes. "The government has got political power, not social power,
and at the end of this century social power is what's important,"
says Jalaeipour. "With over four million people in Iran with BA, MA,
PhD they can't ignore the people."
Another example of the power of the press was during the February 2000
elections. Without the support of the press many of the reform candidates
would not have had a chance to reach the electorate. In fact looking at
the remarkable majority of reform candidates who won seats in the new parliament,
the moderate newspapers should be given much of the credit.
The print media in Iran is amazingly exciting. Newspapers are able to
reach the people and make an impact on their lives. Those who independently
produce papers are risking everything. The challenge of bringing freedom
into Iran is being battled head on by the press and the young people of
the country who will not give up until they have won their fight for freedom.
In reality, the fight for freedom today is similar to the time of the
revolution. Students were the main reason Khomeini was able to topple the
Shah. The majority of the people supported Khomeini because he said he
was going to provide freedoms they did not have under the Shah. In the
eyes of the masses, Khomeini was a step closer to democracy and he preached
equality for men and women. But Khomeini quickly took freedoms away from
women and men and established religious controls. Today, the new generation
of Iranian students is battling a regime their parents fought for. They
are indeed fighting the same battle; they want something better for their
The print media will help in the fight for democracy, but it will not
be easy. Iran is wounded every day as conservatives and moderates fight
each other. The press is caught in the middle, receiving the brunt of the
attack. There are thousands of examples of attacks on newspapers, publishing
companies and journalists. The latest was on March 12 when Saeed Hajjarian,
leading reformist and publisher of the now-suspended liberal daily,
Sobh-e Emrouz, was shot in the face and nearly died in an assassination
Reformist journalists are doing the only thing they can to help bring
democracy to Iran, and that is to write with their own blood if they have
1) Sreberny-Mohammadi, Annabelle. Communications and Revolution in
Iran. Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: Conference on World Communication,
1980. Small Media, Big Revolution. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota
Press, 1994. P. 72. BACK TO ARTICLE
2) Ibid, P. 149-150. BACK TO ARTICLE
3) Schirazi, Asghar. The
Constitution of Iran. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1997. P.
135. BACK TO ARTICLE
4) Menashri, David. Revolution at a Crossroads. Washington D.C.:
The Washington Institute For Near East Policy, 1996. P. 64. BACK
5) Amanpour, Christiane. Perspectives: Revolutionary Journey.
CNN. March 2000. BACK TO ARTICLE
6) Menashri, David. Revolution at a Crossroads. Washington D.C.:
The Washington Institute For Near East Policy, 1996. P. 64. BACK
7) Ibid, P. 64. BACK TO ARTICLE
8) Rahnema, Saeed, and Sohrab Behdad. Iran
After The Revolution. London: I. B. Tauris, 1995. P. 210. BACK TO ARTICLE
9) Jahanbagloo, Jahangir. Iran's fateful voting day dawns. MSNBC
18 February 2000. BACK TO ARTICLE
10) Ibid. BACK TO ARTICLE
11) Macleod, Scott. Enemy of The State? Time, 1 November 1999.
BACK TO ARTICLE
12) Schirazi, Asghar. The
Constitution of Iran. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1997. P.
301 BACK TO ARTICLE