Freedom of the Press
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Press freedom remained extremely restricted in 2008 as the regime’s conservative leaders continued to crack down on critical publications, journalists, and bloggers with arrests, detentions, and newspaper closures. Prior to the March 2008 parliamentary elections and in the run-up to the June 2009 presidential election, officials became especially restrictive of reporting on dissatisfaction with the government, women’s rights and ethnic issues, antigovernment demonstrations, the ailing economy, and the development of nuclear technology.
Constitutional provisions for freedom of expression and the press, which include broad exceptions regarding infringements on the tenets of Islam or “public rights,” are not upheld in practice. In addition, numerous laws restrict press freedom, including the 2000 Press Law, which specifically 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. In the run-up to the June 2009 presidential election, the Tehran prosecutor general announced in December that a special office would be created to review internet and SMS-related crimes.
During the year, the government detained, jailed, or fined several dozen publishers, editors, and journalists (including those working in internet-based media) for their reporting. Charges against journalists and publications are often arbitrary. Prosecutions and sentences are drawn out, and bail sums can be substantial. For example, Said Matinpour, a reporter for an Azeri-language weekly in Tehran who was arrested in 2007 for “publicity” against the government, was required to make a bail payment of 500 million toumen (US$700,000) to secure his release in early 2008 after eight months of pretrial detention. Editors and publishers are prohibited from hiring journalists who have previously been sentenced, and many journalists are forbidden to leave Iran. 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 2007 the creation of a special team whose mandate is to confront publications that are critical of the government. The authorities accused several 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. In March 2008, she was sentenced in absentia to one year in prison, having been charged in 2007 with disseminating propaganda against the Islamic Republic and engaging in activities against national security. In November 2008, prominent Iranian Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan was arrested while visiting family in Tehran on suspicion of being a spy for Israel. At year’s end, he remained detained without charge.
The government continued to intimidate and persecute journalists who covered the country’s ethnic minority issues. Yaghoub Mehrnehad, a member of Iran’s Baluchi minority and a journalist for the Baluchi newspaper Mardomsalari, was executed in August 2008 for his alleged association with the armed group Jundallah. However, no evidence of such an association was presented during his trial. He was arrested after posting a blog entry that demanded the resignation or dismissal of local officials and later confronting these officials in person. 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. Hassanpour’s death sentence—initially upheld by the Supreme Court in December 2007—was overturned in September 2008, although he awaits retrial on espionage charges and could face up to 20 years in prison. Conversely, after Boutimar’s death sentence was initially thrown out in October 2007 on procedural grounds, he was sentenced to death for a second time in March 2008. As of August, six journalists of Kurdish or Arab descent were imprisoned and several others had received suspended sentences for their coverage of politically sensitive topics. In September, four Azeri journalists were arrested during a private meeting with a political activist, although all were released on bail in November.
The 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 sentenced to between two and three years in prison in July 2007, but they were released in August 2008. Journalists also fell victim to violent attacks during the year. In November, journalist Mohammed Khaleghi was stabbed by two men on a motorcycle days after questioning the government’s handling of a gas shortage in Takab. In June 2008, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs threatened to dissolve the Association of Iranian Journalists. Some speculate that this was in reaction to the group’s 2007 statement that the government’s crackdown on independent newspapers had a negative effect on the quality of the independent Iranian media. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has banned or closed more than 150 newspapers since 2000. The crackdown continued in 2008, focusing primarily on reformist outlets, although nine cultural magazines were shut down in March for covering stories about prominent foreign film stars and promoting “superstitions.” Officials warned 13 other publications about the consequences of not following the strict provisions of the Iranian press law. Daily newspaper Tehran Emrooz lost its license in June 2008 after publishing criticism of the president’s economic record while mayor of Tehran. The feminist monthly Zanan was closed in January for “publishing information detrimental to society’s psychological tranquility.” After several copies of Kurdish-language weekly Rouji Ha Lat were bought in Iraqi Kurdistan, it was permanently closed in April for violating the prohibition against receiving foreign financial support.
International media are also unable to operate freely. The government requires foreign correspondents to provide detailed itineraries and proposed stories before visas are granted. Authorities did not renew the visa and residence permit for Robert Tait, a British correspondent for the Guardian, forcing him to leave the country on January 4. He had previously been ordered to leave the country in March 2007 but had successfully appealed the order. On July 22, authorities ordered Agence France-Presse’s Tehran bureau chief, Stuart Williams, to leave the country, despite his possession of a valid resident’s permit.
There are some 20 major print dailies, but following the closure of many reformist publications, those with the widest circulation and influence espouse conservative viewpoints or are directly run by the government, such as the dailies Jaam-e Jam and Kayhan. 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 on channels run by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting network. 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. Hassan Fahs was removed from his position as Tehran bureau chief for the Arab satellite station Al-Arabiya in September 2008, shortly after the station aired a controversial documentary entitled The Road to Revolution. 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.
The regime systematically controls the internet and other digital technologies. Despite restrictions, internet usage continued to increase dramatically in 2008, with approximately 35 percent of the population accessing the medium. A draft law that passed on its first reading in July 2008 would apply the death penalty to bloggers and website editors who “promote corruption, prostitution or apostasy.” The law was still awaiting final approval at year’s end.
The authorities censor online 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.” The government boasted in late 2008 that it was blocking access to five million websites. Access to international news websites and the sites of international organizations is increasingly restricted. Social-networking sites and content-sharing sites such as Facebook, Orkut, and YouTube are intermittently blocked but remain popular, and blogging sites such as Blogger and Persianblog are also blocked. 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 September, online journalists and women’s rights activists Maryam Hosseinkhah, Parvin Ardalan, Jelveh Javaheri, and Nahid Keshavarz were convicted of “publishing information against the government” and sentenced to six months in prison. These and other women’s activists who were charged and detained during 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, such as the website Farda, which was blocked after revealing that the newly appointed interior minister had lied about his academic qualifications.Unable to entirely silence online dissidents, the regime announced in late 2008 that it intended to create thousands of progovernment blogs. This amounted to a recognition of the power of Iran’s hundred-thousand-strong blogging community. Blogs have been harnessed by the large youth population as a medium for expressing frustration about the regime as well as commenting on a variety of social and cultural issues. Seventeen bloggers were questioned or arrested in 2008, seven more than in 2007. 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 information portals—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.