In a speech at the Press Expo in Tehran earlier this month, President Hassan Rouhani expressed regret that Iranians have not succeeded in creating a “lasting newspaper.” He wondered why it was that the Times of London was now in the third century of its existence while even a new country like the United States had newspapers that were over 150 years old.
Yet, in Iran, one of the oldest nations in the world, newspapers were prone to quick death.
One reason, of course, is that those in power in Iran during the last two centuries, that is to say since the press arrived in the country, have always had a peculiar habit of closing down newspapers. The first Iranian newspaper, a government-owned weekly, appeared in 1871 and lasted for 12 years until a newly created Ministry of Publications decided to invest in other ventures while imposing the first system of censorship in the country. In the last years of his reign the late Muhammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi shut down some 20 publications, among them the daily Kushesh (Effort) which, had it survived would have been Iran’s oldest newspaper today.
The current regime dominated by the mullahs started its career by closing down more than 60 newspapers and magazines. Rouhani’s administration, now in its third year, has shut down at least a dozen.
The real miracle is that some newspapers have managed to survive. The two big survivors are, of course, Kayhan, which at the end of the late Shah’s reign was the daily with the largest circulation in Iran, and Ettelaat which marks its 90th anniversary this year and is thus Iran’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper.
Ettelaat first appeared in 1925 almost at the same time that Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, was launching his ambitious modernization plan for Iran. The daily, originally published over four pages only, was the upgrading of a news bulletin that a young aspiring reporter named Abbas Massoudi has started in Tehran in 1923.
Massoudi’s initial aim was to create a news agency, modelled on that of Charles Havas in Paris with bazaar merchants and senior civil and military officials as the potential audience. Since more than 90 per cent of Iranians were illiterate at that time there was no point in dreaming of a mass readership.
Reza Shah’s reforms, including the introduction of compulsory primary education created the hope that within a few years Iran would have enough people able to read and write to form a potential market for newspapers.
Finding an audience was not the only problem that Massoudi faced. While there were numerous poets, essayists and even novelists, there was not a single trained reporter in the whole country. Massoudi himself learned the trade by acing as guide and “fixer” for Western journalists who visited Iran occasionally, and by learning enough French to read Paris newspapers that the French embassy received weeks, if not months after and was prepared to dole them out to anyone who wanted them afterwards.
To his credit, Massoudi managed to train a handful of polyvalent reporters, enough to get the paper going. Another problem, however, was how to remold the Persian language to serve as a vehicle for disseminating news. The Persian language had been “colonized” by poetry for more than 1000 years and was incapable of reporting the mundane events of ordinary life without sinking into a swamp of lyricism. It was necessary to de-poeticize the language and prepare it for journalistic reporting without, however, following the pattern set by bureaucratic and police reports.
Young Massoudi had enough charisma to attract a surprisingly large number of literary figures prepared to work in that direction. Among them were Muhammad-Taqi Bahar, the rising star of Persian poetry at the time, the encyclopaedist Ali-Akbar Dehkhoda, the historian Nasrallah Falsafi and the literary expert Saeed Nafisi.
Later they were joined by a number of other figures who were to play major roles in Iranian journalism, among them Zayn al-Abedin Rahnama, Habib-Allah Amuzegar and Ahmad Dehqan.
One task they faced was to build a new vocabulary to express new realities. Iran was invaded by new products, cars, railways, airplanes, telegram, telephone, banking, factories, radio modern weaponry and Western-made pharmaceuticals to name but a few. Then there were new emerging institutions such as schools, universities, research centers, operas, concert halls, cinema, government departments and new businesses needing new terms and jargon. By one estimate, the editorial staff of Ettelaat and their unpaid advisors coined more than 12000 new words in the first decade of the paper’s existence.
Massoudi was born a reporter and firmly believed that the only job that mattered in a newspaper was that of the reporter. As a cub reporter for the rival daily Kayhan, I came to know Massoudi when he was in his late 60s, a senator and boss of a press empire. I was always surprised why such a “big boss” insisted to cover some news stories himself. In later years as I got to know him better, I understood that he cared little for money, fame and influence; he would give all that up for one good story for his newspaper.
According to French Iranologist Roger Lescaut who wrote a fascinating book about Iran’s jump towards modernity in the two decades that preceded the Second World War, Ettelaat played a crucial role in popularizing key themes of reform, change and modernization. It opened a window to a new world in the creation of which Iranians had played no part but, both fascinated and frightened by it, wished to join it. This was a world of science, industry, technology, legal equality, and confidence in a better future.
Ettelaat spearheaded the campaign for women’s rights, launched in the 1930s, supported the creation of a national army based on conscription and the dramatic changes in the way Iranians dressed and appeared in public. It put an interview with Elli Beinhorn, a German lady pilot on its front page to hammer in the idea that women are as capable as men in all domains.
Massoudi’s initiative inspired many others to launch newspapers, giving modern Iran a dynamic and versatile press within a decade. By the 1930s, Tehran boasted 11 dailies and half a dozen weeklies. Some, like Shafaq Sorkh (Red Dawn) and Setareh Jahan (Star of the World) reached mass circulation level. Others like “Iqdam” (Action) and “Iran” specialized in social and political debates. The only daily to compete with Ettelaat for news was “Kushesh” (Effort) which had initially appeared as a weekly four years earlier.
However, thanks to Massoudi’s passion for news rather than views, Ettelaat retained a clear advantage as a source of information.
In 1941 on the eve of the invasion of Iran by the Allies, Ettelaat had reached a daily circulation of 35,000, a truly massive figure for those days. Over the decades it established its prestige as Iran’s newspaper of record, always avoiding sensationalism and adopting a moderate stance even on the most controversial issues of the day.
After the war, Iranian press experienced a veritable explosion of energy as the number of dailies rose to a staggering 30, many of them organs of political parties and trade unions.
Unlike its rival Kayhan which had only four editors in the first 40 years of its existence, Ettelaat changed editors with the same frequency as Massoudi replaced the paper’s old printing presses. Thus few of Ettelaat’s editors had enough time to put their personal imprint on the paper. Among those who did were Majid Davami, Ahmad Shahidi and Touraj Farazmand.
Ettelaat was where reporters and editorialists made their names, not editors. The paper’s Oil Correspondent Ali Bastani became an authority on his subject for almost 20 years. Its Diplomatic Correspondent Muhammad Pourdad was a pioneer in covering foreign policy related news stories. Leader writers Ahmad Ahrar and Ali Javaher-Kalam became respected voices of authority with daily editorials along with columnists such as Muhamad Mohit-Tabatabi and Ibrahim Bastani-Parizi. Feature editors such as Alireza Taheri and Jahangir Jalili introduced a whole set of new subjects to the paper. Muhammad Massoud, one of Iran’s most famous journalists, first made his name with semi-fictional serial reportages in Ettelaat.
When the mullahs seized power in Tehran in 1979, their first aim was to seize control of the mass circulation Kayhan as well as the radio and television networks. That meant that Ettelaat was not a priority target for the revolutionary mullahs. The paper was taken over by the Foundation for the Dispossessed controlled by Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini. Ettelaat somehow managed to pass under the radar, retaining a good part of its staff and style while others suffered massive purges of personnel and policy.
Ettelaat has managed something even more incredible: not becoming a mere tool of propaganda for the current Iranian regime. To be sure, its director and editors are appointed by the”Supreme Guide” and its policy cannot deviate from that of the regime on any significant issue. Nevertheless, it has retained a tiny space of freedom which it still uses with as much efficiency as is possible under Khomeinist tutelage. It remains the Islamic Republic’s most reliable, or if you like least unreliable, newspaper.