166 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index
Area: 1,648,195 sq. km.
Head of state: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, since August 2005 ; Supreme Leader: Ali Khamenei, since 1989
Iran is the Middle East’s biggest prison for journalists and operates an implacable censorship.
Censors in Iran have far-reaching discretionary power, due to the ambiguity of the 1979 Constitution and the 1985 press law (amended in April 2002), even though there is no prior censorship for daily newspapers. Article 24 of the Constitution defines free expression thus: “All publications are free to express their opinions, except those that conflict with the foundations of Islam and the morality of society. The interpretation and detailed definition of this article are the responsibility of the law.” However the law gives no definition of “religious foundation” and does not say what is covered by the idea of “morality of society”.
Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power on 3 August 2005, the country has seen an upsurge in violence against the press and journalists. A number of official bodies monitor and regulate the work of the media. Alongside the Press Authorisation and Surveillance Commission, the Supreme National Security Council, responsible for the press within the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Orientation, as well as the Ministry of Intelligence, censor journalists on a daily basis, banning them from raising specific issues. These include any questions relating to matters nuclear, women’s movements, the summoning and arrests of journalists and so on. Judicial authorities also regularly interfere with the work of the media. Tehran’s chief prosecutor Said Mortazavi is in regular touch with newspaper editors to demand their silence on some subjects and to dictate their front page to them. Even government media can be used to lay into journalists who give interviews to foreign media.
Thirty newspapers were banned in 2008, 22 of them on the orders of the Press Authorisation and Surveillance Commission, under the authority of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Orientation. This Commission is the main tool operated by the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his crusade against the media. It regularly makes use of Article 33 of the press law that allows an “immediate ban on publication of a newspaper that replaces a banned newspaper with a similar name, logo and format”. This article aims to prevent banned reformist newspapers from reappearing under a new title as did the magazine Ayandeh-é-No, which was banned at the end of November 2008, on the orders of the Press Authorisation and Surveillance Commission, after its editor said that the editorial team would be made up of journalist who previously worked for the weekly Shahrvand Emrouz, which was itself banned during November 2008.
The government still refuses to put an end to its broadcast monopoly and it is still against the law to own a satellite dish. The government not only prevents Iranian journalists from freely covering national news but it also tries to gag foreign media. Culture and Islamic orientation minister, Mohammad Hossein Safar-Harandi, in December 2008 banned the new BBC Persian-language channel, along with all cooperation by Iranian journalists with foreign media.
Iran is also the most repressive country in the Middle East’s when it comes to the Internet, even though the Iranian blogosphere is one of the region’s most combative. The authorities have been stepping up control online in the run-up to presidential elections on 12 June 2009. The country’s chief Internet service providers are reliant on the state-run Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI). Despite the existence of private companies in the market, the state remains the biggest player. A draft law put forward on 2 July 2008 and currently going through parliament will mean the death penalty for creating blogs and websites that “promote corruption, prostitution and apostasy”. The Parliamentary Justice Commission on 3 November set up a new filtering committee, at the same ratifying some articles of a draft law on “Internet offences”. The adviser to Tehran’s chief prosecutor also said on 19 November that the authorities had filtered “five million websites”.
At least 60 journalists and bloggers were summoned, questioned and convicted in 2008. Although Emadoldin Baghi, leading light of the defence of prisoners’ rights was freed in October 2008, after a year in jail and Tehran’s Supreme Court in September quashed a death sentence against Adnan Hassanpour, journalists Mohammad Sadegh Kabodvand and Mohammad Hassin Falahieh Zadeh are still being held in extremely harsh conditions and some prisoners do not get the medication they need.
Not content with imprisoning journalists and bloggers, the regime also targets human rights defenders. Iranian police on 21 December 2008 closed the offices of the Circle for the Defenders of Human Rights, headed by lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, on the grounds that the organisation did not have interior ministry permission to “carry out its activities”. The organisation, which was founded by Ebadi in 2002, provides free legal aid to Iran’s journalists and human rights activists. Her legal chambers were searched on 29 December.
Finally, the foreign press has huge difficulty in travelling to Iran and to work there. Local correspondents for foreign media face come under constant pressure and are regularly summoned by the intelligence services. Three foreign reporters were expelled in 2008.