London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Anyone with an interest in newspapers is bound to be impressed when strolling in one of Tehran’s boulevards—they are dotted with kiosks selling a range of publications.
Tehran may be one of the last major capitals where newsstands remain a part of the urban landscape. Depending on which paper is banned on a given day, at least 15 dailies are on sale at Tehran’s newsstands, an appreciable number by any standards. (Tehran boasted more than 20 dailies in the 1950s but only eight in the last years of the Shah.)
However, the large number of dailies on sale in Tehran does not equal many genuine reading options. For the press in the Islamic Republic is owned and tightly controlled by rival factions within an establishment based on an alliance of military-security services and a section of the Shi’ite clergy in partnership with big business.
The first feature of the Iranian press is that while publication permits are issued in the name of individual owners, they can almost always be traced back either to government departments, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, or to political blocs supporting one of the “big players.” For example, the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei is the permit holder for the daily Islamic Republic, while he also appoints the Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan. His erstwhile ally and current rival Hashemi Rafsanjani finances a number of dailies, often through business partners linked to his family. The president of the day also controls a number of newspapers published by the government.
The government spends an average of 150 million US dollars each year subsidizing the press, through paid reportages, advertising, lower tariffs on newsprint, and direct handouts. Needless to say, the faction that controls the presidency at any given time is more generous with its own segment of the press than that controlled by rival factions. Nevertheless, government subsidies also act as a disincentive for the press to develop its own economic base through larger circulation and more advertising revenue. With total daily circulation of the press hovering around a million, private sector advertisers prefer spending their money at television channels. Before the revolution, Kayhan‘s circulation reached the one million mark, something no newspaper in the Islamic Republic has so far come close to.
The Iranian press has a fairly large number of well-trained reporters who, given a chance, could operate at international standards. Many are young men, and increasingly also women, who have graduated from the Institute of Mass Media Studies set up by Kayhan in the 1960s in Tehran. They know the techniques of the trade as well as any reporter in free societies but are unable to produce the kind of work they would like because of “fear and censorship.” That problem is reflected in a short story by Vali Khalili, a crime reporter for a Tehran daily, about a young journalist’s investigation of a mysterious disappearance. On several occasions the reporter thinks of “dropping the whole thing” because he knows that if he set a foot outside “the red lines” he could simply be fired or killed or, worse, forced into exile. Since the mullahs seized power in 1979, over 100 journalists have been executed or murdered, and many others thrown into prison. Hundreds have fled into exile. Right now dozens of journalists are in prison while many are banned from working in the media. They are called “Mamnu Al-Qalam” (Forbidden Pens).
Like anyone who is genuinely smitten by journalism, Khalili’s hero is ready to jettison his grumbling girlfriend, ignore his dying mother, snub his snooty boss and risk his life by encountering dangerous characters only to complete his investigation.
He wonders how “to deal with this maddening censorship” not to mention self-censorship. His friends advise him to give up. But then he meets Muhammad Boluri, a famous crime reporter of the pre-revolutionary era, who urges him never to abandon “a good story.” Khalili’s hero recalls that scores of colleagues have fled abroad to work in Persian-language radio and TV channels set up by Britain, the US, France, Germany and Arab countries to fight the Islamic Republic. He also knows that several journalists were killed and their bodies dumped on the roadside during the tenures of presidents Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami.
The prospect of exile breaks his heart. “I need to be in the belly of the beast,” he writes. “I need to be in Tehran, to smell it, to taste it, feel it, know its aches and pains and the sadness of its people.” A newspaper without a city is the shadow of the real thing and a reporter without a newspaper is no more than ghost.
One way to avoid risks is to steer clear of “hot issues”, especially political ones. This is perhaps why Tehran has so many dailies dealing with economic and business issues and sport. Iranian journalists produce good copy on a range of economic subjects and sports. Their work is of high standard when dealing with such issues as environmental disasters. The Iranian press also has competent film and theater critics and writers on literary and cultural subjects.
Censorship works in different ways. One way is to deny the press information on which to construct a news story. Because the state and para-state organs control most aspects of Iranian life they are also key sources of information. If they decide to keep something outside public discussion they often succeed. For example, it is interesting that the nuclear issue has never been discussed in a serious way, not even in the Islamic Majlis, the ersatz parliament. The issue is presented as the number one concern of Iranian strategy, but no Iranian journalist is allowed to get a handle on it. Iran is also a major oil exporter. And yet, today not a single Iranian journalist operates as an authoritative oil correspondent as was the case with reporters such as Ali-Akbar Khairkhah and Ali Bastani in pre-revolutionary times. Almost a third of the national budget goes to military and security expenditure. And, yet, once again Iranian press is not allowed to train and deploy reporters dealing with such issues.
Even when information is given, it is often impossible to double-check because officials have learned to keep their mouths shut or, where possible, bribe less scrupulous reporters to relay only the authorized versions.
Then there is the problem of daily censorship when someone from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture telephones editors to tell them what “red lines” to avoid that day.
Because really important issues cannot be treated in a serious manner, Iran remains massively under-covered, so to speak. The pity of it is that Iran has enough talented journalists that, given freedom, could produce a press of high standard. As far as journalistic skills are concerned, for example, Muhammad Quchani, now editor of the daily Sharq (East) is a talented craftsman. However, caught in the maze of factional feuds, he is often forced to put the interests of his faction ahead of that of a good news story.
At the other end of the spectrum, Hussein Shariatmadari, Kayhan’s Editor-in-Chief, is a seasoned polemicist reflecting the views of the “Supreme Guide”. However, he too often finds himself on rhetorical banana skins placed by his duty to flatter the “Big Cheese.” For example, in a recent editorial he claimed that a message sent by Ali Khamenei to “The Youth of Europe,” which they mostly ignored, had had “the effect of an earthquake in the West.”
A few satirists still get away with a great deal, among them Aydin Sayyar-Sari and Shahram Shaidi, and some dailies, including Mardom-Salari, still give space to mordant cartoons. However, Iran, which before the revolution had several satirical journals, lacks one today.
“Don’t publish that!” is only one kind of censorship. Even worse is another form of censorship: “Publish that!” In that category newspapers are used as propaganda sheets for the Khomeinist ideology, the global Hezbollah movement, classical anti-Americanism, anti-Arab and anti-Israeli shibboleths, and pipedreams about the return of the Hidden Imam and the eventual conversion of humanity to velayat-e faqih, or rule by a single mullah.
Iranian newspapers remind me of a keen and well-prepared runner forced to turn himself around in a tight space like a blindfolded horse rather than join the others in the field for a marathon in which he could shine.