London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The history of journalism in Iran is a story of more than 150 years of struggle between journalists and those in power. Depending on the political circumstances of the day, this struggle has sometimes put journalists on top, sometimes sent them to their deaths on charges of treason, and everything in between.
It has been more than 35 years since the Islamic revolution culminated with the slogan “freedom and republicanism” and 17 years since Iran’s newspapers were recognized for the first time as the fourth pillar of civil society and as the columns of democracy under then-president Mohammad Khatami. Today, the Islamic Republic’s newspapers are experiencing conditions as bad as those during after the 1907–1907 Constitutional Revolution and the 1953 coup against then-prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq.
In the Khatami era, the emergence of the reformist newspaper Jame’eh laid the groundwork for the publication of a large number of other papers, setting the stage for a “golden age” of Iranian journalism. In 1999, newspaper readership in Tehran reached 86.2 percent of the population, and the average newspaper reading time exceeded 38 minutes a day. A short time later, a political crackdown and systematic action by conservatives was accompanied by the assassination of more than 80 authors, translators, poets and political activists by Intelligence Ministry agents. The golden age came to an end with the botched attempt on the life of Saeed Hajjarian—a key Khatami aide and a newspaper editor known as the foremost theorist of the reformist movement—the mass closure of newspapers in the spring of 2000 by government order, the arrest of journalists investigating the assassination bid, and the emigration of prominent journalists such as Mohsen Sazegara and Ebrahim Nabavi .
In the intervening years, the Iranian government has weakened the reformist press. Today, a reformist press survives in name only—their content nothing more than what is relayed by conservative news agencies.
Journalist and economic analyst Hadi Anvari recently concluded that the reformist press sources as much as 60 percent of its content from news agencies affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other conservative factions.
Anvari reached his conclusion after reviewing the economics pages of a leading reformist newspaper in the second half of the first month of the Iranian calendar year, which began on March 21, and recording the contribution of news agencies affiliated with different factions to this newspaper. He published the results on his Facebook page.
During those two weeks, when newspapers were dominated by news of the government’s subsidy reform plan, 58 percent of the news articles published by this reformist newspaper were taken from conservative-run news agencies: Fars and Tasnim, which are affiliated with IRGC, and Mehr, which is affiliated with Organization for the Promotion of Islam. Government-run news agencies contributed only 31 percent, and other media (like the state broadcaster) had an 11-percent share.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat for this story, Anvari said the main reason behind the influence of conservative news agencies stems from the fact that they are better funded, operate under fewer constraints, and enjoy superior access to news sources.
Currently, no specific reformist news agency is active in Iran, and news agencies can be put in two categories: those operated under government aegis, and those run by conservatives opposed to the reformists’ agenda. The Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), which once enjoyed a reputation for independence, has seen its status decline in recent years due to financial problems.
Anvari says conservative news agencies rarely face financial shortfalls, while reformist newspapers are plagued by financial and management problems are are sometimes unable to pay their employees.
“Even if there are good journalists in the reformist camp, they have no competent managers,” he says. “It results from the attitude of their managers. Conservative managers recognize journalism is a job and they know that a job must be compensated, but reformist managers believe that a reformist journalist should work based on his beliefs, and payment is their last priority.”
Reformist journalists also face more obstacles in doing their jobs in terms of official discrimination, says Ahvari, claiming this is true even under the Hassan Rouhani, the moderate president elected last summer.
Anvari said: “It is really regrettable for me to tell you that the officials [in the Rouhani administration] trust conservative media rather than reformist media. But this problem is related to public relations, which is an important element in a government. At present, the public relations offices of the government’s main centers are run by people hired under [former president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.”
The result, he says, is that government press officers assist “pro-government” media while imposing news blackouts on critics. This is exacerbated by fears of the superior influence of conservative media outlets, leading officials to treat them with more deference, while reformist editors fear the repercussions of being too critical of state bodies. “The Subsidy Regulation Committee cannot hang up on a journalist from a conservative media outlet, but it can easily reject a call from a reformist journalist,” says Anvari. “A reformist journalist has no influence and he is barred by his manager from criticizing this organization. Moreover, reformist press enjoys no safety margin regarding criticism.”
Political pressure on reformist media is also a major factor in their degradation in quality and quality. Even when reformists were in power, the reformist press was under pressure from the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and powerful bodies like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Basij milita. Reformist newspapers and the authorities engaged in a bizarre game of cat and mouse, with newspapers reforming themselves under a new name after being shut down, only to be shut down again.
In contrast, the Fars news agency has pursued its own editorial line for the past 20 years, becoming the most powerful news agency in the country. More moderate news agencies like IRNA and ISNA were active under Khatami, but were forced to reconsider their policies under Ahmadinejad.
“[The] Reformist press has no safety margin,” Ahvari repeats. “Once there was a undrafted law according to which a website whose ranking was low in Alexa [a US-based Internet traffic analysis company] was immune, but as soon as its ranking reached 99 it faced closure over even the least controversial article.”
The result, he says, is self-censorship, pointing to a recent well-publicized corruption case. “The [case] was officially announced several months after [its disclosure] on Mehr news agency. After that, the reformist press could write about it,” he says.
Now, with the Rouhani administration facing numerous domestic problems and added pressure from hardliners over nuclear talks, it finds itself short of defenders in the media. It remains to be seen if Rouhani will take steps to lessen the stranglehold of pro-conservative media over Iranian journalism, or if reformist journalists will be able to rally and try to reclaim some space for themselves in the battle to shape the public debate.