Freedom of the Press
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Press freedom deteriorated in 2007 as the regime’s conservative leaders continued to crack down on critical publications, journalists, and bloggers through arrests, detentions, and newspaper closures. The Iranian authorities were especially restrictive on coverage of women’s rights issues, antigovernment demonstrations, the ailing economy, and the development of nuclear technology. The constitution provides for limited freedom of opinion and of the press. However, numerous laws restrict press freedom, including the 2000 Press Law, which 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. 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 prison terms of one to five years for lesser offenses, 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,” and 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 without legal proceedings to temporarily ban publications.
Charges against journalists and publications are often arbitrary. Prosecutions and sentences are drawn out, and bail sums for provisional release while awaiting trial are substantial. Editors and publishers are prohibited from hiring journalists who have previously been sentenced, and many journalists are forbidden to leave Iran. The successive arrests and closures of media outlets have led to widespread self-censorship among journalists. The government’s Office of Public Relations announced in July the creation of a special team whose mandate is to confront publications that are critical of the government.
In 2007, more than 50 journalists were prosecuted or imprisoned, some without charge, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres. At least 10 journalists remained in prison at the end of the year. The Iranian authorities accused several other journalists of having ties to foreign governments, as was the case with Iranian American journalist Parnaz Azima, who was working for the U.S.-backed Radio Farda. She was charged with disseminating propaganda against the Islamic Republic and engaging in activities against national security. Azima was among four people with dual citizenship who were detained during the year. All were later released on bail or allowed to leave the country. The government continued to intimidate and persecute journalists who covered the country’s ethnic minority issues. Kurdish journalists Adnan Hassanpour and Abdolvahed Boutimar were sentenced to death in July 2007 for expressing their views on the Kurdish issue, based on charges of endangering national security and engaging in propaganda against the state. The Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for Hassanpour in December but overturned Boutimar’s verdict. At least three other Kurdish journalists and one ethnic Arab journalist were imprisoned for their reports on the government’s harsh treatment of minorities. The Iranian authorities also monitored student-run media, shutting down student publications and arresting eight student editors at Amir Kabir University in May 2007 for insulting state leaders and inciting public opinion. Three of the students were prosecuted in July and sentenced to between two and three years in prison. Their sentences were eventually reduced in December to four months in prison, and the three were ordered to be released; however, prison authorities refused to release them at year’s end. Journalists also fell victim to violent attacks during the year. In November, two journalists were stabbed in separate incidents by unknown assailants.
A report by the Association of Iranian Journalists in 2007 stated that the profession has suffered in quality and financial stability since the conservative government began cracking down on independent newspapers. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has banned or closed more than 100 publications since 2000. The crackdown continued in 2007, focusing primarily on reformist media outlets. At least 11 publications were suspended, 4 of them indefinitely. The reformist dailies Shargh and Ham-Mihan were shut down during the summer, a few months after they had resumed publication following previous suspensions. In September, a Tehran court confirmed the closure of the reformist daily Golestan-e Iran, which had been suspended since 2004, charging it with publishing content that was “lying and hostile to the Islamic regime” and “offending against decency.” The deputy interior minister announced a new policy on September 30 forbidding any media from reporting on any party or political group that was not licensed by Commission 10 on Political Parties.
In 2007, there were some 20 major print dailies. The most widely distributed newspaper is the government-supported Keyhan, with a circulation of 350,000. Owing to limited distribution of print media outside larger cities, radio and television serve as the principal sources of news for many citizens, with more than 80 percent of residents receiving their news from television. The government maintains a direct monopoly on all domestic broadcast media and presents only official political and religious viewpoints. Together with the Persian-language channels, the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting targets Arabic speakers in Iraq and the Middle East via the Al-Alam and Al-Kawthar television networks. A government-run, English-language satellite station, Press TV, was launched in July 2007. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said its mission would be “to stand by the oppressed of the world,” according to the British Broadcasting Corporation. Although it is forbidden, an increasing number of people own satellite dishes and access international news sources. Satellite radio stations such as Radio Farda and the Dutch-funded Radio Zamaneh also provide international broadcasts to a large part of the population.
Public use of high-speed internet connections was banned in October 2006. However, internet usage continued to increase dramatically in 2007, with a 7,100 percent growth rate since 2000—by far the largest in the Middle Eastern region, according to Internet World Stats. In January, the government announced that all websites and blogs needed to register with the authorities before March 1, yet only a very small number of sites actually registered, leading authorities to change the regulation to apply only to sites or blogs with their own domain. Iranian authorities systematically censor internet content by forcing internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to a growing list of “immoral sites and political sites that insult the country’s religious and political leaders.” Since the summer of 2006, the censors have focused their efforts on online publications such as Zanestan that deal with women’s rights issues. In November, online journalist and women’s rights activist Maryam Hosseinkhah was charged with disturbing public opinion, engaging in propaganda against the regime, and spreading false news. Hosseinkhah and a number of other women’s activists who were charged and detained throughout the year were involved in a web campaign seeking to gather signatures in protest of Iranian laws that discriminate against women. Several Iranian news websites, such as Emrouz, Ruydad, and Rooz Online, were filtered. Conservative news websites were also subject to censorship. In the beginning of the year, the conservative online publication Baztab was blocked for carrying reports on Iran’s nuclear industry and on corruption, in which President Ahmadinejad was criticized. Access to international news websites and the sites of international organizations is increasingly restricted, and there were contradictory reports on the censoring of YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and Flickr, indicating that the blocking of websites is occurring at the ISP level and not through an official ban. Nevertheless, websites continue to communicate opinions that the country’s print media would never publish, with both reform advocates and conservatives promoting their political agendas. Iran’s most popular blogs oppose the regime, and many bloggers publish anonymously. 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—that promote freedom of expression and inform the Iranian public on human rights issues.