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"Why are they afraid of the press?" Photo by Siamak Namazi

Red ink
The battle for freedom of the press

By Azadeh Hamehdoni
June 29, 2000
The Iranian

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 movement.


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 reform.

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 [1978], 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" (2).

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" (3).

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 (5).

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).


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 children.

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 attempt.

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 to.


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 TO ARTICLE

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 TO ARTICLE

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


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

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the translator Azadeh Hamedoni

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