The state of the Iranian media can serve as a bellwether for understanding where the country is headed. In the past, the restrictions under which Iranian journalists had to operate fluctuated as the political fortunes of conservatives and reformists shifted.
When reformist president Mohammad Khatami entered office in 1997 with a promise of “dialogue of civilizations,” journalists inside the country took advantage of the less restrictive environment to address new and controversial topics. But a few short years later, when a conservative backlash occurred, reformist newspapers were closed down and Khatami’s ministers were pressured into resigning. Western leaders soon realized that the “dialogue of civilizations” would remain only a slogan.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration was in the opposite camp in 2005 in that it worked in tandem with the security forces to close newspapers and arrest political activists. But in his second term, when Ahmadinejad clashed with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, one of the first victims of the government crackdown was his media adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who was arrested and jailed after making critical remarks about the Islamic Republic’s dress codes for women. His fall from power was so steep that Ahmadinejad was refused permission to visit him in prison.
The possibility for either progress or further repression exists today. While there have been many improvements regarding the media and its freedom to operate under President Hassan Rouhani, the future is still uncertain. As the country’s political factions continue their struggle to shape Iran’s foreign and domestic policy, their battles—as in other countries—are being reflected in the equally partisan media outlets.
Who holds the reins?
The press in Iran is closely supervised by the government, under the overall purview of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The Minister of Culture is appointed by the president and must be approved by Iran’s parliament. Given the sensitive role he or she plays, it is generally understood that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has to, at the very least, have no objections to the individual selected.
Decisions to permit or ban publications are made through the Culture Ministry’s Press Supervisory Board, which includes representatives of the judiciary, parliament, Minister of Science, Supreme Council of Qom Seminary and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution as well as Ministry of Culture staff. Besides the Press Supervisory Board, Iranian journalists must also contend with the judiciary’s Press Court, which can and does make decisions independent of the Culture Ministry.
Rouhani’s Culture Minister, Ali Jannati, does not appear to be attempting to resurrect the so-called “Golden Era” of Iranian journalism under reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Yet several journalists inside Iran confess that in comparison to the eight years in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, the pressure from the administration on editors has dramatically decreased.
Probably the best demonstration of how Rouhani has had to maintain a balancing act between conservative forces and his campaign promises to deliver a freer atmosphere for the media is the closure of reformist Bahar newspaper in October 2013. The daily paper published an article by the well-known religious–nationalist activist Asghar Gharavi, who was perceived to be questioning the principles of Shi’a Islam. Jannati told reporters that the closure of Bahar, one of the premier reformist newspapers in Iran, was “unfortunate,” and lamented that under his philosophy “there are other ways than closing newspapers.” The implication here is that other institutions, most likely the judiciary, had insisted on the closure of the paper.
These statements can be contrasted with those of Ahmadinejad’s culture minister, Mohammad Hosseini, when in 2012 the reformist paper Shargh published a cartoon that was accused of mocking war veterans. Hosseini not only said he recommended suspending the paper’s license to publish, but suggested there was “foreign cooperation” in the dissemination of the cartoon and encouraged the public prosecutor to take action on the matter.
In short, as one journalist in Iran said to me, while there is still pressure from the Judiciary through the Press Court in Iran, at least it’s not “both the administration and judiciary applying pressure together anymore.”
Iran’s media landscape
Iranian media can be divided into four distinct categories: print, including newspapers, weeklies and monthlies; news agencies; websites, which are often affiliated to political figures or institutions; and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation, a kind of Iranian BBC whose director is chosen directly by the Supreme Leader. Aside from television, most people get their news from a dozen or so major newspapers or the country’s news agencies.
Established in 1943, Kayhanis one of the oldest newspapers in Iran, and it is perhaps the most well-known conservative paper. Its editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, was appointed directly by the Supreme Leader. For this reason, Kayhan is often referred to as Khamenei’s “stenographer” or “mouthpiece.” However, there are strong grounds for arguing that Kayhan doesn’t exclusively represent Khamenei’s own personal views.
For instance, with regard to the Geneva nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany), Khamenei has expressed support for the diplomats conducting the negotiations and has asked other officials to do the same. Yet, Shariatmadari’s editorials have on numerous occasions criticized not only the Geneva deal but also head negotiator and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Despite the occasional divergence between Khamenei’s statements and Kayhan’s editorial line with respect to the nuclear deal, Shariatmadari’s personal closeness and access to the Supreme Leader and the security agencies makes him a unique figure in the Iranian media. His acerbic op-eds can be viewed as a throwback to 1980s Iran—a time when there was a deep distrust of the US and the West, and when those inside the country who appeared to be sympathetic to them were accused of acting as “fifth columnists” for US and Western conspiracies.
Shariatmadari’s editorials are often republished on hardline and conservative websites. Though it does not have a high or popular readership, Kayhan is distributed to government offices and is a go-to source for journalists and analysts who view Shariatmadari’s position on current events as pivotal to understanding Iran’s powerful and influential ultra-conservative faction.
On the opposite political spectrum of Kayhan is Shargh Daily. At the moment it is the most popular reformist newspaper. While there are a handful of other reformist newspapers that produce consistently good work, such as Etemaad, Ebtekar, Aftab-e Yazd, Arman and Ghanoun, Shargh stands out as one of the few newspapers conducting investigative reporting and landing big interviews.
Most newspapers in Iran rely a great deal on the news agencies, such as Fars News Agency, Iranians Students’ News Agency, Mehr News Agency, Iranian Labor News Agency, and Islamic Republic News Agency. Papers typically select a handful of quotes from the news agency transcripts and weave together a short article. More ambitious writers will sometimes seek out another source to balance the article. The usual pattern, however, is to compress news agency interviews and transcripts to make them palatable for the readers of their paper.
Shargh consistently seeks out new stories, compiles unique reports and conducts extensive interviews with individuals who are typically ignored by the news agencies. However, they are not alone. Reformist newspapers are generally the only publications to cover issues that are considered taboo or off-limits by political hardliners or the religious conservative type. For instance, in December 2013, Ghanoun, the most conservative of the reformist papers, conducted an interview with a female university professor who called Iran’s religion-based testimony laws “discriminatory” against women. This interview was criticized by a number of hardline websites.
Another aspect that sets Shargh apart in Iranian media is its social media presence. Of all the Iranian newspapers, it has the most active and up-to-date Twitter account. They tweet not only their articles, but also breaking news from the news agencies and breaking international news in both Persian and English. Among the social media platforms, Twitter has been slow to catch on among Iranian users, and remains blocked by Iranian internet censors, even though President Rouhani, among others, has an official account. However, that has changed in recent months, and among other Iranian media on Twitter Shargh has been one of the more effective users of the medium.
Reformists journalism in Iran should not necessarily be confused with “objective” journalism, however. All of them enthusiastically—perhaps too enthusiastically—support Rouhani’s administration, especially in the fields of foreign policy, economic reforms and the relaxation of many of the social restrictions in the country.
Nearly a month before the November interim nuclear deal was announced, reformist daily Arman, working on the news that US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif had met, published a drawing of the two shaking hands on their front page. And Aseman daily, which recently went from being a magazine to a daily newspaper, and which is under the leadership of a former Shargh editor, had on their very first issue a picture of Rouhani with the headline “Rouhani is not alone.” Perhaps not so coincidentally, Aseman was closed on the orders of the judiciary after just six issues for printing a quote that called qisas (Islamic retribution law) “inhuman”. In what can only be viewed as an ominous sign, Jannati said that the Ministry of Culture was not involved in the decision.
Just as reformist papers seek out interviews with individuals aligned with their political views, conservative newspapers, when not republishing condensed versions of news agency reports, seek stories aligned to their political ideology. Of the handful of the more popular newspapers, Javan, Resaalat, Etelaat, Quds, Jomhouri Islami and Javan can be considered the most hardline, while Jomhouri-e Islami and Quds are center-Right.
On February 16, two days before the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 were to resume, Javan had a very extensive article entitled “Negotiations, Threats, and now Interference.” The article outlined four steps it said the US would pursue in regard to the nuclear negotiations: the incremental suspension of Iran’s nuclear abilities, issuing military threats against Iran, attempts to humiliate Iran and, finally, interference in Iran’s domestic affairs. The perception that concessions in the nuclear negotiations will eventually lead to concessions on domestic issues that will lead to fundamental changes in the identity of the Islamic Republic is a predominant concern among hardliners in Iran. It is no surprise, then, that Javan is believed to be politically aligned with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or that its managing director, Abdullah Ganji, was the deputy head of the Student Basij.
However, such a strong editorial line cannot be seen with Ettelaat—which, after eighty-eight years in print, is Iran’s oldest active newspaper— Resalaat or Jomhouri-e Islami. All three newspapers, which have had long-serving editors, serve as a good source of information for those interested in understanding the concerns and focus of attention of conservatives in Iran. Their articles are typically straightforward and have a strong focus on statements by conservative officials. Only rarely do they run articles that create a great deal of noise or controversy.
A conservative newspaper that has been making a great deal of news recently is Vatan-e Emrooz. Its controversial take on the nuclear deal, which it referred to as a “nuclear holocaust,” and its coverage of the Ukraine protests which ousted President Victor Yanukovych, which it called a “pro-Western coup,” has made it a popular and notorious name. Its editor, Mehrdad Bazrpash, is politically close with Ahmadinejad and is also a conservative MP.
Odd men out
In between the reformist and conservative papers there are other popular newspapers that do not necessarily fit into either category.
The presidency has its own newspaper, known simply as Iran, which is the official newspaper of the administration. It was founded in 1995, and as presidents and their administrations come and go its focus and slant changes as well. Its affiliated website is Shabeke Iran (Iran Network) and it operates under the Islamic Republic News Agency. It can be considered the “official mouthpiece” of each administration.
Tehran Municipality’s Hamshahri is one of the more popular newspapers in Iran. Most of its reports are brief, and given that it operates under Tehran municipality, it covers a great deal of Tehran-related news. This paper, however, should not be confused with the official paper launched by Tehran’s mayor, Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf: Tehran-e Emrooz.
Jaam-e Jam is also a popular newspaper in Iran. It operates under the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Given that the head of IRIB is chosen by the Supreme Leader and that the position typically goes to someone with more conservative views, it seems logical that Jaam-e Jam has a more conservative slant. However, the paper should not be considered a hardline publication.
Iran has four major English-language newspapers: Kayhan International, which belongs to Kayhan; Tehran Times, which operates under the Mehr News Agency; Iran Daily, the English edition of the presidency’s Iran, and Iran News.
A new climate?
It is too early to tell if Rouhani’s ideas for domestic reform will be fully implemented and, more importantly, if they’ll last. In the 2014 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, Iran was placed pretty far down on the list, at 173 out of 180 countries. Despite the relative freedom seen since Rouhani took office there have been setbacks, and most journalists, particularly reformists, admit to a high level of self-censorship.
To what extent Rouhani is willing to battle the judiciary to push for a more open climate for journalists, and how much political capital he is willing to expend to pursue that goal, are questions that will take time to answer. The priority for Rouhani at the moment, and arguably also for most Iranians, is a resolution to the nuclear negotiations, the lifting of international sanctions, and addressing a dismal economy and the corruption that has plagued it. Major, or even permanent, domestic reforms for the press are secondary concerns for Rouhani. However, after a nuclear deal it has the potential to be one of his most lasting legacies.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.