Freedom of the Press
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Press freedom continued to deteriorate in 2006 as the regime’s conservative leaders cracked down on critical publications and journalists through arrests, detentions, closures, and the establishment of new restrictions on internet media. At the same time, a striking contrast has emerged between government efforts to restrict information and the public’s efforts and ability to access it, particularly through satellite and other foreign broadcasts that remain beyond government control.
The constitution provides for limited freedom of opinion and of the press. While it protects individuals from punishment for holding a certain belief, Article 24 of the charter, along with the vaguely worded 2000 Press Law, forbids the publication of ideas that are contrary to Islamic principles or detrimental to public rights. The government regularly invokes vaguely worded legislation to criminalize critical opinions, and punishments for violations are harsh. Article 500 of the penal code states that “anyone who undertakes any form of propaganda against the state…will be sentenced to between three months and one year in prison”; the code leaves “propaganda” undefined. Under Article 513, offenses deemed to be an “insult to religion” can be punished by death or by prison terms of one to five years for lesser offences, with “insult” similarly undefined. Other articles provide sentences of up to two years in prison, up to 74 lashes, or a fine for those convicted of intentionally creating “anxiety and unease in the public’s mind,” spreading “false rumors,” writing about “acts that are not true,” or criticizing state officials. Iran’s judiciary frequently denies accused journalists due process by referring their cases to the Islamic Revolutionary Court, an emergency venue intended for those suspected of seeking to overthrow the regime. The Preventive Restraint Act is used regularly to temporarily ban publications without legal proceedings.
Critical journalists are deterred by a range of obstacles in the legal system. Charges against journalists, bloggers, editors, and publications are often arbitrary; prosecutions, trial dates, and sentences are delayed; and bail sums for provisional release while awaiting trial are substantial. Although fewer journalists are imprisoned today than in the past, laws prohibit editors and publishers from hiring journalists who have previously been sentenced, and imprisoned journalists have complained of solitary confinement and torture.
In 2006, many of those targeted by the Office of the Supreme Leader and the Iranian judiciary, led by Tehran prosecutor general Saeed Mortazavi, were well-known for their critical stance toward the government or advocacy of human rights and freedom of expression. In one of the year’s more prominent cases, reformist intellectual and journalist Ramin Jahanbeglo was arrested in April, presumably in response to an article in which he challenged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust. Jahanbeglo was held in Tehran’s Evin prison without charge until his release in August. In July, the minister of intelligence accused Jahanbeglo of “taking part in a U.S. attempt to carry out a velvet revolution in Iran,” prompting rights groups to view the case as the beginning of an intensified crackdown. Later that month, Hassan Hadad, a judge with a record of prosecuting journalists and personally torturing prisoners at Evin prison, was made deputy prosecutor for security issues. He was assigned the task of “forcefully cracking down on threats to overthrow the regime.” In a more positive development, Akbar Ganji, a well-known writer sentenced in 2001 to six years in prison for “spreading propaganda” and “collecting confidential state documents to jeopardize state security,” was released in March.
The government has forcibly closed or banned more than 100 publications since 2000. This trend continued in 2006, with a particular focus on critical media outlets. The most significant closure of the year occurred in September, when the Sharq daily, Iran’s most prominent and last remaining reformist newspaper, was shuttered for failing to heed Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance (MICG) orders to replace its managing director. The director had been charged with more than 70 wide-ranging violations immediately after the paper ran a satirical report on the president. Sharq had previously come under pressure from the authorities for its editorial stance and particularly for criticizing the rulings of the Supreme National Security Council, which oversaw Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the international community. Another daily, Rouzegar, was banned in October after taking in many former Sharq staff members.
The government continued to intimidate and harass journalists who covered ethnic minority issues in the country, where the dominant Persian ethnic group make up just over half of the population of roughly 70 million. In May, the MICG invoked Article 12 of the Press Law to close Iran Friday, a state paper, and arrest an editor and a cartoonist for “fomenting discord” by publishing a cartoon deemed insulting to the Azeri minority; Azeris make up about a quarter of the population. The editor was ultimately acquitted and the cartoonist fined, and the ban on the paper was lifted in September; it has since published under a largely new staff. In December, one of Iran’s leading ayatollahs, Fazel Lankarani, issued a fatwa calling for the death of an Azeri journalist and his editor after the publication of an article claiming that European values were superior to those of Muslim countries.
The country’s numerous legal restrictions and successive closings and arrests make self-censorship common. However, critical reporting was particularly prevalent in 2006 before and after the elections for the Assembly of Experts and municipal governments in December. Criticism of the government among the hard-line and conservative press increased notably following the poor electoral performance of Ahmadinejad’s allies, with some publications questioning the president’s stance on the nuclear issue. Some observers attribute this development to a growing rift between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Iran is home to more than 20 daily newspapers, though most Iranians do not read newspapers on a regular basis. The most widely distributed paper is the government-supported Keyhan, with a circulation of 350,000. More than 80 percent of residents receive their news from television, and the government directly maintains a monopoly over all domestic broadcast media, which present only official political and religious viewpoints. The Islamic Republic News Agency is the chief supplier of news to radio, television, print, and internet media. It falls under the authority of the MICG, headed by Mohammed-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, a former Keyhan employee with a long history of cracking down on the reformist press.
Although satellite dishes that receive foreign broadcasts are forbidden, an increasing number of people own them, allowing many of Iran’s more prosperous city dwellers to access international news sources. Satellite radio allows a larger portion of the population to hear international broadcasts. Radio Farda, a joint initiative of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, broadcasts news twice an hour, seven days a week, along with popular Persian and Western music, in an effort to reach Iran’s growing youth population. According to The Washington Post, a survey conducted in 2006 found that roughly 13.6 percent of the adult population listened to Radio Farda each week.
Internet usage continues to increase, with more than seven million Iranians able to access the internet in 2006, but the press freedom watchdog Article 19 maintains that the government’s heightened online censorship campaign has left fewer citizens willing to challenge the status quo. Still, websites continue to express opinions that the country’s print media would never carry. Moreover, the internet provides a forum for political debate, with both conservatives and reform advocates using it to promote their political agendas. The internet has also provided a key platform for international initiatives—such as Article 19’s Persianimpediment.org, Freedom House’s Gozaar, and Rooz Online—to promote freedom of expression and inform the Iranian public on human rights issues.
Iran has roughly 100,000 bloggers, most of whom oppose the regime and publish anonymously to avoid detection, reflecting the extent to which journalists and dissidents have turned to the internet in the last several years in an effort to circumvent official control. The judiciary began targeting online journalists, bloggers, and technical support staff in 2004, and all of those detained in 2004 and 2005 were held in solitary confinement at a secret detention center, subjected to torture, and denied access to lawyers and medical care. Most of those imprisoned in 2004 were released in 2005. In January 2006, Arash Sigarchi, a blogger who campaigned actively for the promotion of diverse viewpoints through internet journalism, was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting the Supreme Guide” and publishing “propaganda against the regime.” A number of other online activists received jail sentences for critical writings during the year.
There was a hike in internet filtering in the name of morality over the summer, followed by a series of new restrictions aimed at preserving Islamic culture, especially for Iran’s younger generation, according to Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Sites dealing with the condition of women were targeted in particular. According to Information and Technology, the company responsible for internet filtering, 90 percent of filtered sites are proscribed owing to immoral character, and 1,000 new online publications are added to the blacklist each month. Public use of high-speed internet connections was banned in October, and a cabinet decision in November ordered all websites dealing with Iran to register with the authorities. The decision also officially outlawed all sites that insulted Islam and monotheism in general, disseminated separatist ideologies, published false information, or threatened individual privacy. While the registration of the country’s tens of thousands of websites would be difficult to implement, the new edict established an ominous legal pretext for arbitrarily banning more sites. YouTube, The New York Times website, and the English version of Wikipedia were all blacklisted in December.