This article was written before the author’s most recent arrest. Authorities arrested Isa Saharkhiz and at four other journalists in early November 2015, accusing them of being part of an “infiltration network.” Saharkhiz has gone on several hunger strikes since his most recent incarceration. On April 26, 2016, the four other journalists arrested were handed down long prison sentences. Saharkhiz's verdict is yet to be announced.
For over a century, since the dawn of the press in Iran, Iranian journalists have experienced unwanted ups and downs in their activities, from intense to light censorship, from self-censorship to sometimes absolute censorship — meaning a complete shutdown of papers and even killings of journalists. Each ebb and flow has its roots in a specific period, be it a revolution, a period of reforms or a coup d’état.
In the span of just one century, Iran has experienced two full-fledged revolutions. The first was the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907, which aimed to control an absolute monarchy by establishing a parliament and the rule of law. The second, the Islamic Revolution, overthrew the monarchy and set up a republic. Both carried promises of expanding political and cultural freedoms, establishing democracy and respecting human rights, but both lost their ways and what followed was either disappointing or at times worse than what came before.
When political and cultural battles become intertwined and journalists must engage on both fronts, the media is bound to become a battleground as well. Journalists are sent to prison and the sword seeks to rule the pen by censorship or by force. Along the way, rulers have shut down hundreds of newspapers and magazines, tens of journalists have lost their lives, hundreds of writers have spent years in prisons, and many have taken shelter at home or become exiles.
But even the 35 years after the Islamic Revolution have not been uniform. In the early months after, Iran fell prey to religious and ethnic infighting. Then Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded the country and occupied parts of its western provinces. The eight-year war that followed consumed both the government and the people in an all-out campaign to drive out the invader.
War imposes its own political conditions and cannot be compared to peacetime. The reasons must be clear. When parts of the country are under the military occupation of a foreign enemy, the state imposes wide-ranging censorship in military and even economic matters as part of the defense of its borders. More importantly, journalists and editors themselves self-censor out of fear that the enemy might take advantage of the information they are publishing.
So we have to set aside not only the first post-revolutionary decade but also a small slice of the second decade, until the implementation of the ceasefire and of the UN Security Council Resolution 598, which ended the war. So it is more appropriate to talk about censorship in Iran in the years since the Iran-Iraq War ended. In this period the government could not use the war as a pretext for pressuring the media, arresting journalists or shutting down newspapers.
Article 24 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution states that “publications and the press have freedom of expression, except when there is an infringement of the basic tenets of Islam or public rights. In this respect detailed provisions will be laid down by law.” According to Article 4 of the 1986 Iranian Press Law, “no government or non-government official should resort to coercive measures against the press to publish an article or essay, or attempt to censure and control the press.” Article 5 adds that “the press is lawfully permitted to acquire and disseminate domestic and foreign news aimed at enhancing public awareness by taking into consideration the best interests of the community and by observing the provisions of the existing law.” A provision to Articles 4 and 5 explicitly declares that violators will be punished.
The real problem in Iran lies with the political and judicial structure of the Islamic Republic. Besides the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government, the supreme leader has vast powers to slow reform and to imprison not only journalists but also government officials through the military, security and judicial institutions under his control.
As a result, during the past three decades, Iran has experienced periods of “dual sovereignty” when elected institutions have acted in support of the media and the press to ease censorship, but the appointed institutions which act under the supervision of the supreme leader have worked at a cross purpose. They have prevented the unfettered publication of news and reports and with the help of the judiciary have shut down newspapers and magazines, arrested journalists, and denied the people uncensored information.
With this in mind we can discuss the topic of “censorship of the Iranian media in the past four decades” within four distinct periods – the full eight-year terms of presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the first 20 months of the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, during which we have returned to “dual sovereignty.”
A snapshot of the situation can be found in a report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, published in 2015 on the eve of World Press Freedom Day. In its list of “10 most censored countries” Iran ranks seven. It is preceded by Eritrea as number one, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, the Republic of Azerbaijan and Vietnam, and is followed by China, Myanmar and Cuba.
The Presidency of Rafsanjani, 1989-1997
This is the period that prepared the ground for major political and cultural changes in the Islamic Republic. In the end, it led to the presidency of the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who had been the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance under Rafsanjani but resigned in protest in 1992.
Rafsanjani replaced Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the president when the war ended, after the passing of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He started his presidency by relaxing the political atmosphere and allowing the press more freedom. But, as has become a norm in the Islamic Republic, little by little the restrictions and the censorship encroached again.
These restrictions were first imposed by the executive branch itself, which led to the resignation of Mohammad Khatami from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. He was replaced by Ali Larijani, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who is now speaker of the Iranian parliament. No truly independent press existed at the time, so the purges were reported only by state-owned media outlets such as the daily newspapers Kayhan and Ettela’at and the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
With the end of the war, a number of military and paramilitary Basij commanders were released from the shackles of the battleground and decided that it was an appropriate time to occupy positions of political power. They wanted to compensate for the power that they had left in the battlefield by occupying seats in government. This was made possible by the Ministry of Culture. First Ali Larijani became the minister and then Hossein Shariatmadari, a well-known interrogator at the Intelligence Ministry, was appointed as the supervisor of the newspaper Kayhan. At the same time, the gang around Saeed Emami, the deputy minister of intelligence who later organized the assassinations of dissidents – an episode known as the Chain Murders – began implementing their own cultural policies.
This was the start of a period jam-packed with censorship, self-censorship, arrests, forced TV interviews where the interviewees were ordered to humiliate themselves, and of course the physical purge of writers and journalists with the above-mentioned Chain Murders, which left more than 80 intellectuals dead.
In this period, military and security forces had the last word against writers, translators, journalists and the directors of the media, whom they forced to self-censor or to accept explicit government censorship. They knew if they objected, they would be forced to forget about their publications or books in dark prison cells. Any failure to obey led to detention in unknown places, imprisonment in nameless prisons and eventually consenting to humiliating forced confessions on television or in press conferences.
But of course the ultimate form of absolute censorship is blocking journalists physically, by forcing them into exile or by killing them secretly.
If for certain domestic or international reasons it was not possible to purge a journalist or a publication, then it became the main duty of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and its Press Supervisory Board to limit the free flow of information by shutting down papers, by refusing to issue publication permits and by preventing the work of independent media. We usually understand censorship as applying to specific news and viewpoints but this must be called “preventive censorship” because it kills the ideas in the bud and forces journalists, writers and translators to confine themselves to their homes.
It was in this period that the authorities blatantly violated Article 168. According to this article, “political and press offenses will be tried openly and in the presence of a jury, in courts of justice.” Instead, the power to close down publication was given to the Press Supervisory Board, which now acted as both the judge and the jury.
But things did not end here. Besides the government, shadowy gangs set out to create an atmosphere of terror. They attacked newspaper offices, broke equipment and beat not only directors and journalists but even ordinary employees and workers. A prominent example was the nationalist politician Ezzatollah Sahabi, managing editor of the weekly Iran-e Farda, who was physically assaulted and had his magazine shut down.
Characteristics of this period were as follows:
— Permits for publications were issued on a case-by-case and selective basis and most were given to high government officials or their associates.
— The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and its Press Supervisory Board created arbitrary obstacles for applicants to drive down demand for permits to publish. In other words, they followed the policy of “preventive censorship.”
— Indirect pressures on prominent writers and journalists to dissuade them from applying for publication permits.
— Preventing the few publications who had inadvertently received permits from continuing their activities.
— Direct censorship of the contents of dissident publications.
— Officially or unofficially preventing certain issues of newspapers and magazine from distribution through phone calls and letters to the managing editor, the printing house or the distributor.
— Indirect censorship by providing lists of persons who were forbidden to write, or issuing orders on whose work must be published or cannot be published.
— Temporary or permanent suspension and revoking publication permits without regard to Article 168 of the constitution and mainly through the Press Supervisory Board or pliant judges.
This encapsulates the challenges of this era, though during that time, I was in New York covering the United Nations.
There is one anecdote, both funny and sad, which typifies the period. The reformist newspaper Salam, which often criticized President Rafsanjani, was especially targeted by the government. One day, mindful of censorship, the editorial board could not agree on a safe headline. In the end, they chose a headline that read “Imports of Donkeys from Cyprus.”
The Presidency of Mohammad Khatami, 1997-2005
At the time, my tour of duty at the United Nations was over and I was spending my leave in Istanbul. My dear friend, the late Ahmad Bourghani, the reformist politician who had been the head of IRNA at the UN, called me back to Tehran. I returned to Iran in less than 24 hours. About four hours after landing, I was at the office of Bourghani, who had been just appointed as the Ministry of Culture’s new deputy for press affairs. Also present were a few old friends, who are now living in exile. They insisted that I should accept the position of Director-General for Domestic Press. They believed that it was a simple and hassle-free job, but I could not agree with them.
Of course at the time, nobody was aware of the murderous techniques used by Saeed Emami and the Ministry of Intelligence to control journalism. No one anticipated that it would be the office of the director-general for domestic press at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that would become the enforcer of censorship.
Even if we believe that the era of President Ahmadinejad is over and the presidency of Hassan Rouhani has marked the end of widespread arrests of journalists and over-arching censorship, I believe that the reformist era under Khatami was a genuinely exceptional period in the history of Iranian journalism.
Before this time, Iranian journalists only had a relatively free press when the central government was weak. This was true during the Constitutional Revolution, the nationalist movement in the mid-20th century and the period just before the Islamic Revolution. The Reform Period is an exception in that a “press spring” emerged when a new government took power, with the support of the overwhelming majority of the electorate.
In this period, journalists cooperated closely with the reformists, especially the president himself, Mohammad Khatami. They sought to not only abolish censorship but to do away with the whole system of permits and state interference in newspaper publishing.
The press itself played a key role in implement the government’s policies. The Press Supervisory Board, now run by reformists, issued numerous publication permits and sought to end the restrictions put in place by the previous president.
But the anti-reform and totalitarian power structure soon struck back. The authorities first launched a discussion about the dangers of “newspapers which were growing like mushrooms” and then mobilized security and intelligence agencies. The Islamic Judiciary, which is under the direct supervision of the supreme leader, was given the task of “skinning the journalists alive” and the wholesale banning of newspapers and arrests of journalists followed. Hardliners impeached the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance and removed or put on trial many senior officials of his administration.
Just before this dark period, the circulation of newspapers had almost tripled – from 1.2 million copies a day to around 3.5 million per day. The main reason was the relative absence of censorship and self-censorship.
The Iranian press was on the verge of becoming the “fourth pillar” of democracy, but when the totalitarian forces struck back, it was over. Soon the disaster of Ahmadinejad’s presidency followed and numerous journalists and publishers either ended up in prison or chose exile. An all-encompassing censorship froze free and independent journalism when it was about to blossom.
Now the Islamic Republic is known as one of the biggest prisons for journalists and bloggers. After the 2009 presidential election, it had the distinction of being the biggest prison in the world. And now newspapers and magazines can do whatever they want except professional journalism, and journalists can write anything except the truth.
I spent the whole second term of Ahmadinejad’s presidency in prison, and for several months of my time in solitary confinement, I had no access to newspapers at all. Later, I only had access to the papers that were allowed into prison. I can only tell you that the cancer of censorship and self-censorship is so advanced and widespread that even after the election of a moderate president, censorship has yet to retreat in any meaningful way. The press still cannot publish reports about former President Khatami or print a picture of him – let alone report on the leaders of the Green Movement who have been under house arrest since 2009. Journalists fear the consequences of disobeying the regime as intensely as before.