The contrast between modernity and tradition in modern-day Iran is striking to say the least. It is a society in where social and political institutions contain both modern and traditional elements, and this contradictory nature is most clear the post-revolutionary press. To compensate for the lack of political parties following the 1979 Islamic revolution, the clerical leadership slightly loosened restrictions on the press. While this did not create an easy transition to social and political freedom, the press has succeeded playing a crucial role in shaping Iranian public opinion through introducing discourse different from that of the state, as well as enabling the public to communicate their views within the established boundaries.
Taking into account its sheer influence, the press has the potential to apply increased pressure on the state to undertake political liberalization. In the case of Iran, progressing toward a more vibrant press and making public what has traditionally been discussed in the private realm is not only a matter of establishing modernity but is also seen a threat to the regime’s existence from those who hold power. Political rifts have resulted in a battle being waged in the press between those who support change and those who resist it; those who champion the cause of popular legitimacy and those who reject it; and those who recognize the tide of modernity versus those who embrace traditionalism.
The struggle between reformists and conservatives over press liberalization can be traced to the early 1990’s when former President Rafsanjani began to show greater lenience towards independent press and journalists. Three factors contributed to this change. First, the Iran-Iraq War had just ended and there was a feeling that the country must show a positive impression towards the outside world. Second, the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 changed the linkage of his commands and national interest. Khomeini had “commanded extraordinary respect and obedience while he was alive” (1) but now authority could be questioned.
The last and most important factor was the appointment of Khatami as the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance throughout 1983-1993. As Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Khatami eased the restrictions on the press, yet his tolerance towards varying ideological views was resisted by the conservatives, forcing him to eventually resign.
The press had traditionally been dominated by a few state-financed and controlled daily newspapers such as Kayhan and Resalat. Yet within two years of Khatami’s presidency and his appointment of Ayatollah Mohajerani as Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister, numerous reformist newspapers began publishing, each representing a specific political and social viewpoint such as women, youth, culture, literature and discourse on political rights. Thus, the press emerged as a major component of civil society and in essence became a battleground of various political factions. Due to an absence of independent opposition and political parties, and in an environment of sociopolitical intolerance, the press became the major source for reformist and secular intellectuals who sought to promote freedom of expression and political participation.
Yet simultaneously, newspapers were shut down for violating unevenly enforced and unclear regulations. One editor remarked “Every time the press in Iran is warned by officials, we are told that we have crossed a red line, although no one has bothered to tell us where that red line is.” (2) Journalists were often jailed and prevented from practicing journalism.
The rise in the number of newspapers led to a transformation in the nature of the press, a major element in transforming the state of Iranian civil society. A pivotal moment came in late 1998, when the press made public a string of murders of writers and intellectuals, as well as exposing the involvement of the Intelligence Ministry, leading to the resignation of the Minister of Intelligence. The press went a step further in openly criticizing the establishment of violence initiated by opponents of change and exposed the alleged connection between vigilante gangs attacking the citizenry and state institutions. It was also the press that exposed the security forces’ beatings of university students throughout the country in July 1999, leading to previously unprecedented public protests against the state of the Islamic Republic.
The press became the manifestation of the political and cultural divide in the nation. The religious right’s dailies such as Jomhouri-e Eslami, Hamshahri and Kayhan represented the view of the judiciary, the armed forces, the Guardian Council and the Assembly of the Experts. Papers such as Salam, Payam-e Hajar and Asr-e Ma represented the views of the religious (and to a lesser degree, the secular) left, while Khordad and Sobh-e Emrooz voiced the associates of President Khatami. Thus, the movement for a free press weakened the foundations of the state social structure and an attack on the free press by the judiciary and conservatives ensued, leading to a dramtic change that resulted in the fate of the short-lived reformist press in Iran.
A major cause for this abrupt change was a speech that the conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made in April 2000. In February 2000 the conservatives lost the parliamentary elections to the reformist candidates, and they blamed their loss on the press for their defeat. In Khamenei’s speech he described the liberal press as bases of the enemies of the Islamic Republic. Referring to the press as “enemy strongholds,” Khamenei called on the government to halt the press.
The judiciary immediately responded to this call and twenty-one major newspapers and popular journals were shut down. Asr-e Azadegan, Akhbar-e Eghtesadi, Azad, Arya, Fatth, Iran Farda, Sobh-e Emrooz, Payam-e Hajar, and more were banned. Prominent jounalists such as Akbar Ganji and Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, Emadoldin Baghi, Ebrahim Nabavi, and Masood Behnood, were put behind bars. 15,000 journalists and press employees were now unemployed. By April 2000, the parliament strengthened a controversial press law to define what could and could not be published, leading to the closure of thirteen more publications, and forty-four more by April 2001.
What led to such stagnation in the growth of the liberal press, the sudden closure and imprisonment of prominent journalists, and what were the factors that led the emerging public space to arrive at such a dismal situation? The shutting down of the newspapers affected much more than just the press. Khamenei was involved in the closure of the reformist press and he personally ordered the parliament to stop debating the new proposed press law. These actions were committed as a faqih, or supreme leader, who according to his allies, is infallible and therefore his actions were justified.
To explain the conservatives’ view towards the pro-reform press, one needs to look not only at the judicial system, but also to three key political developments during the late 1990’s that changed the conservative control over power and eroded their legitimacy. The conservative establishment viewed the liberal press as having influenced these three events. Thus, their animosity towards the free press and their attempts to shut it down has risen.
The first event was the presidential election of 1997. Khatami’s landslide win over his more well-known rival, conservative speaker of parliament Ayatollah Nateq-Nouri, took the establishment by surprise. The press played a major role in Khatami’s victory through having promoted his platform, thus driving his win over Nateq- Nouri.
The second development was the 1998 Tehran council elections, where the conservatives widely defeated the conservative candidates. Lastly, the third event, and the most damaging to the hardliners, was the April 2000 parliamentary elections, where the reformists made an overwhelming victory over the conservatives. Rafsanjani, who had run with the backing of the conservatives in this election, lost. In an attempt to save what was left of his legitimacy, the Council of Guardians interfered with an announcement that there had occurred rampant cheating in the vote tallying for the Tehran ballot, and called for a recount. After the recount, Rafsanjani was placed in twentieth place, yet the public believed this was an obvious manipulation of the votes. Ultimately, Rafsanjani resigned to save what was left of his prestige.(3)
It was the press’ exposure to Rafsanjani’s past that contributed to his loss in the city council elections. The liberal press began criticizing him when the parliament passed a special law to allow Rafsanjani to run as a candidate in the forthcoming elections. Furthermore, many journalists unearthed controversial incidents in Rafsanjani’s past in an attempt to discredit his legitimacy.
The conservatives correctly viewed the press as a major cause of their defeat in three separate elections: the city council elections, the parliamentary elections and the presidential elections. Still, after this string of defeats, the hardliners continued to hold the major sources of power in the armed forces, the judiciary, the police, the Ministry of Intelligence, the Friday prayer leaders, and in radio and television. The press’ demand for an equal distribution of governmental power also threatened their existence, despite them holding a majority of authority after the reformists’ widespread victories.
Following Khatami’s second term in office and the current Ahmadinejad administration, debate in and about the Iranian press has not relented. The press continues to be a forum of public debate about the future of the Islamic Republic, but efforts by reformist parliamentarians to amend the April 2000 press law that closed the papers proved unsuccessful. Thus, this public space for debate is increasingly being limited through the closure of newspapers and journals.
Of course, if unobstructed by the state, the Iranian media, like any other, would not be completely objective and without bias. As illustrated, numerous newspapers serve as the voice of particular factions and publicize their political standpoints. Some are affiliated with the government and others, such as Salam, are reflective of more populist leanings.
The Iranian press serves as a vibrant, albeit increasingly powerless medium for public discussion over many social and political issues. Even with the existing restrictive press law, Iranian publications often violate its vague guidelines, and its new restrictions make it even easier to break the law. Because of this, it is unlikely that the pattern of closures and reopenings will stop and all the more likely that despite the restrictions, public debate over the contemporary Iranian political issues will continue.
Furthermore, Iranian access to foreign media through radio, satellite and the internet will rise as they attempt to find new sources of unbiased reporting about developments within and outside Iran. State-controlled radio and television had a significant role in influencing opinions because newspapers and journals have limited circulation in rural areas. The closure of many liberal publications increased this influence. Yet Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) is viewed as being pro-establishment biased in its programming, leading more Iranians to turn to foreign sources.
During the last days of the Khatami presidency, despite his inaction, the popularity of the press increased while the legitimacy of the state lessened. Ultimately, the press has become an integral part of an emerging but unstable Iranian civil society, with its ideal of a pluralistic society. Society’s resentment of state autocracy and the infringement on freedoms that it accompanies have been expressed through the lamentations of the press.
What then is likely to hold for the future of the press debate in Iran? It is probable that Khamenei will continue to personally intervene, but what is yet to be seen is the reaction of the dwindling reformist members of the Majlis and the pro-reform press. The Khatami and Ahmadinejad presidencies have illustrated that the constant closure of publications has not silenced public debate but rather eroded the legitimacy of the state.
Despite increasing apathy among the Iranian populace, the widespread support shown for the press in the past few years indicates that ultimately the conservatives will have to concede. If they refuse, it could translate into a major confrontation between both sides where both sides suffer as a result.
On the other hand, if the conservatives emerge as the long-term victors, the majority of the people will feel alienated from the system and express its illegitimacy, similar to the lack of legitimacy that the Pahlavi dynasty experienced in its last days. After all, the reformists, however dissipated they may be nowadays, have warned of widespread alienation and disappointment in the system because of the conservatives’ failure to cooperate with reform. Regardless of the outcome, the press has proven to be a major public venue in the ongoing struggle for power and reform in the Islamic Republic.
About Mariam Hosseini recieved a Master's Degree in International Relations from San Francisco State University, where she focused her writings on the prospect of indigenously forming democracy in the Middle East. Her research interests are focused on civil society building in modern-day Iran. Visit distant-voices.com/mariam
Notes (1) Merat, Zarir. “Pushing Back the Limits of the Possible: the Press in Iran,” Middle East Report, 212, 1999, p.33. (2) “New Year Starts With Crackdown on Publications,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, v.2, no.15, 12 Apr 1999. (3) Abdo, Genveive. “The Fragility of Khatami’s Revolution,” Washington Quarterly, 23 (4), 2000, p.60.