29 December 2003, Volume
THE IRANIAN MEDIA IN 2003.
By Bill Samii
SUMMARY. This report discusses Iranian media developments in 2003 -- including print publications, radio and television, and the Internet. The print media in Iran are subject to a harsh yet vague press law, and selective enforcement of that law by conservative courts over the past 3 1/2 years has resulted in the closure of approximately 100 publications and the prosecution of dozens of journalists. Moreover, state decrees on what and how to cover events (e.g. Operation Iraqi Freedom and the June student protests) amount to a form of censorship. The Internet, therefore, is becoming an increasingly important news source -- and in 2003 the government took measures to control Iranians' access to websites. The state monopolizes broadcast media: the news provided by state television and radio is biased and inaccurate and the entertainment available there is not appealing. As a result, satellite television programming is popular, although owning satellite equipment is illegal. For the same reasons, Iranians listen to Persian-language radio broadcasts from other countries.
I. Print media.
Since Spring 2000, the Iranian government has used a variety of pretexts to close approximately 100 publications. The parliament launched an unsuccessful effort in January to change the press law, with amendments that would remove both the current geographic restrictions on the distribution of publications and a requirement that subject matter be limited to a specific topic.
A previous attempt to amend the press law, in August 2000, was quashed. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned at the time in a letter that was read aloud to the parliament, "Should the enemies of Islam, the revolution, and the Islamic system take over or infiltrate the press, a great danger would threaten the security, unity, and the faith of the people and, therefore, I cannot allow myself and other officials to keep quiet in respect of this crucial issue." Khamenei went on to say in his letter, "The current [press] law, to a degree, has been able to prevent the appearance of this great calamity, and [therefore], its [amendment] and similar actions that have been anticipated by the parliamentary committee are not legitimate and not in the interest of the country or the system."
The Supreme Leader is empowered to overrule any other state official. If predictions of voter apathy are borne out, it seems increasingly likely (as of December) that a conservative majority will recapture the legislature in the February 2004 parliamentary election. There is little chance that the press law will be reversed any time in the foreseeable future.
In October, however, the legislature did pass a law that limited the duration of "temporary" press closures. In some cases these temporary closures have lasted several years, making them permanent for all intents and purposes. The intent of the legislation is to limit temporary closures to a maximum of 10 days for newspapers, four weeks for weeklies and biweeklies, two months for monthlies, and three months for other publications. Once that period expires, the ban cannot be renewed.
Another development related to the way press courts operated. The Tehran Province Justice Administration announced on 9 October that press court verdicts would be issued by three judges after they obtain the jury's opinion. Iranian Journalists Guild director Rajabali Mazrui described this as a positive development, and Muslim Journalists Society chairman Amir Mohebbian said that this would restore journalists' trust, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 14 October.
Restoration of journalists' trust in the government will be difficult, in light of events that took place during the 7 August press festival. Some reporters refused to accept their awards, while others presented their prizes to the families of imprisoned colleagues. Bahman Ahmadi-Amoui, who won an award for investigative reporting, did not accept his prize; instead he objected to state radio and television correspondents receiving awards while nothing was said about Akbar Ganji, Abbas Abdi, and others who are in jail, "Yas-i No" reported on 10 August. Mohammad Heidari turned down his prize for political reporting and said, "Journalists are free in the country if they write something that has no relation to the interests of the powerful people." Heidari also voiced his objection to the death of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who was beaten to death in Evin prison.
II. Broadcast media.
A. State broadcasting.
There is no private radio or television broadcasting in Iran. A state agency, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB, a.k.a. Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic), is responsible for all broadcast programs originating in the country. IRIB's director is Ali Larijani, a conservative appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Under Larijani's guidance, and especially during the presidency of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, IRIB has earned a reputation for political bias and inaccuracy in its coverage of both domestic and foreign affairs. This has engendered criticism from pro-reform Iranians.
For example, several Iranian commentators criticized IRIB's coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A Tehran University professor warned in early April that IRIB's biased reporting could be harmful to Iran's national interests and expressed the hope that no Iranian official would believe this reporting. "Reports such as 'America is being defeated,' 'all their plans have failed,' 'America has been bogged down on the battlefield,' 'the Iraqis have been successful,' and suchlike, which one can deduce from the news reports and analyses of the Voice and Vision, are unreal," the professor said. One parliamentarian complained in April that IRIB analyses of the war depicted events in such a way that viewers were likely to believe that the Iraqi regime would win, while another parliamentarian said that IRIB's coverage was so biased that it violated Iran's stated policy of neutrality.
IRIB is no better at covering domestic news. It imposed a news blackout during the July demonstrations in Tehran. The reformist daily "Mardom Salari" said in June that IRIB did not report on unrest and rioting in Tehran that month until 10 days after it had ended, and the report that was broadcast tried to connect the riots with satellite-television channels based outside the country and with the U.S. leadership. Moreover, IRIB merely showed "pictures of broken windows and thrown stones on the ground," while it "forgot about the universities and students." On the program, a citizen complained that his telephone cable was disconnected -- but there was no mention of the violent and bloody attack at Allameh Tabatabai University.
The IRIB Supervisory Board, which monitors state radio and television, criticized on 27 October what it described as a failure by IRIB to behave impartially, as well as lobbying for a political party. This went against IRIB's role as the "national media," the board announced, and it called on IRIB Director Ali Larijani to ensure impartiality in coverage of legal or real entities, particularly parliamentarians.
State television has six channels in Tehran. Channels 1 and 2 offer news and entertainment; Channel 3 offers sports and entertainment; Channel 4 has cultural programming; Channel 5 offers Tehran-oriented programs; and Channel 6 is news.
There are seven national radio stations -- Network One, Farhang (Culture), Koran, Educational, Sports, Youth, and Payam (an FM station heard mostly in Tehran that has traffic reports, short news items, and music). Provincial broadcasters are more popular than the national stations, however, according to a November 2002 survey of 13,600 radio listeners in 31 cities by the VVIR Center for Radio Program Research, Study, and Evaluation. Listeners said that the quality of the signal, as well as the specific topics on the air, generally determined their listening choices.
B. Exile radios.
As of approximately one year ago, more than 20 radio stations not affiliated with the Iranian government broadcast in Persian for an Iranian audience. This number has fallen because a number of these stations were based in Iraq and affiliated with the Baghdad-backed Mujahedin-i Khalq Organization, and since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein they are rarely heard. Other stations included the Voice of the Iranian Communist Party (still broadcasting but subject to jamming) and many that were linked with Kurdish groups, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's Voice of the People of Kurdistan (still available), the Kurdistan Democratic Party's Voice of Iraqi Kurdistan (still available), Radio Komala (still broadcasting but subject to jamming), and Voice of Kurdistan Toilers (no longer available).
Other Persian-language exile stations are the Worker-Communist Party of Iran's Radio International, the Voice of Southern Azerbaijan, and Radio Barabari (Radio Equality), which claims to be on the side of workers, women, the unemployed, and national minorities.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), China Radio International, Deutsche Welle, Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel), NHK Radio Japan, Radio Farda, Radio France International, Voice of America, and Voice of Russia all broadcast in Persian to Iran.
Iran also is the target of religious broadcasting, and currently Christian programming is "completely organized by the evangelical branch of Protestant Christianity" (Biener). Trans World Radio and Adventist World Radio transmit in Persian. A Bahai station, Radio Payam-i Doost (Radio Message from a Friend), began shortwave broadcasts to Iran in May 2001.
C. Satellite-television broadcasts.
In 1994, the Interior Ministry declared satellite dishes illegal. At the time, hard-line figures said that satellite dishes were like U.S. flags and the programs they receive were part of a cultural war. A law banning satellite dishes went into effect in 1995. In October 2001, reformist parliamentarians called for an end to the ban on receiving satellite television, but the government blamed satellite-television broadcasts for riots that month and resumed confiscation of private satellite dishes.
Discussions on eliminating the satellite ban started again in November 2002, and were soon followed yet again by dish confiscations. The legislature ratified portions of a bill that would legalize private ownership of satellite receiving equipment in December 2002. The Guardians Council, which must approve all legislation on constitutional and Islamic grounds, rejected legislation in January 2003 authorizing private ownership of satellite receiving equipment.
Given the boring and biased nature of domestic programming, Iranians continue to ignore such restrictions and to tune in to Persian-language satellite broadcasts. Some of the stations available to them are: Appadana (http://www.appadana.com), Azadi TV (http://www.azaditv.com), Channel One TV (http://www.channelonetv.com), IPN TV (http://www.ipntv.com), Iran TV Network (http://www.irantvnetwork.com), IRTV (http://www.irtv.com), Jaam-e-Jam (http://www.jaamejam.com), Melli TV (http://www.mellitv.com), NITV (http://www.nitv.tv), Pars TV Network (http://www.parstvnetwork.com), Rang-a-Rang (http://www.rang-a-rang.com), and Tapesh TV (http://www.tapeshtv.com). All of these stations are based in the Los Angeles area, with the exception of Rang-a-Rang, which is based near Washington, D.C.
The Communist Workers Party of Iran intends to establish a satellite television channel, an anonymous "source close to the leadership of the Communist Workers Party of Iraq" said in the 1 December issue of the Kurdish weekly "Jamawar." The Iranian and Iraqi parties reportedly will share airtime. According to an announcement on the party website (http://www.wpiran.org/english.htm), broadcasts will commence in January 2004.
Voice of America (VOA) launched a nightly Persian-language television program called "News and Views" in July. VOA also produces a weekly news magazine called "Next Chapter" and a 90-minute discussion show called "Roundtable With You." According to a November U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) press release that cited a nationwide telephone survey of 1,000 people, these programs reach 12 percent of Iranians over the age of 18.
The Iranian exile stations offer a mixture of news and entertainment, and the extent of their political involvement varies. According to Purdue University Professor Yahya Kamalipur, NITV and Azadi TV are pro-monarchist, while Tapesh and Iran TV are more commercial, "Entekhab" reported on 4 and 5 November. Kamalipur said that the satellite broadcasts emphasize entertainment over education, although there are some useful shows. The channels also expend a lot of energy insulting each other, Kamalipur said. "It seems that the Iranian satellite channels spend half of their time selling Iranian carpets," he added.
The broadcasters claim to be very influential. California State University, Los Angeles, Professor Afshin Matin-Asgari is less sanguine. He told PBS "Newshour" on 19 June that a "very small percentage of the population, mostly upper-class households in Tehran, maybe a few other cities," could afford access to satellite television. "Most people don't see satellite television," Matin-Asgari concluded.
Whatever the extent of the satellite stations' influence, the regime clearly fears them. Recognizing the futility of merely banning satellite-receiving equipment, Tehran turned to jamming satellite broadcasts. In April, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps transmitted powerful jamming signals from its bases in Tehran, which prompted complaints from President Khatami and reformist members of parliament. The jamming took a more forceful tack in July, when broadcasts from VOA-TV and other Persian-language stations were the target of signals originating in Cuba. Tehran and Havana denied any involvement in the jamming of the satellite broadcasts.
Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) Information Affairs Director Mohammad Sadri said in the 20 June issue of "Entekhab" newspaper that about 1.7 million Iranians use the Internet. He estimated, furthermore, that there would be 5 million Internet users in the country by March 2004 and this number would reach 15 million in five years.
In light of the restrictions placed on the press and the limitations of broadcast media, the Internet has become an increasingly popular source of information for Iranians. Tehran reacted to this development with concern: in January, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution created a special committee to identify problematic websites. In May, a government spokesman said the state telecommunications company has started blocking access to "immoral" sites -- including chat rooms, through which Iranian men and women get acquainted, as well as political sites.
Also in May, the judiciary announced the creation of a special unit to deal with Internet-related issues and the prosecutor-general said that the judiciary is drawing up a bill to investigate Internet offenses. One month later, a judiciary spokesman said the absence of government-imposed filtering would put off potential Internet users.
The judiciary spokesman listed more than 20 matters that would likely be filtered, including "the dissemination of blasphemous items; insulting Islam and Islamic sanctities; opposing the constitution and publishing any item that might undermine the independence and the territorial integrity of the country; insulting the leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] and the sources of emulation [leading clerics]; [distorting] the values of the Islamic revolution and the principles of the political thought of Imam Khomeini; undermining national unity and solidarity; creating pessimism and hopelessness among the people regarding the legitimacy and effectiveness of the [Islamic] system; providing publicity for illegal groups and political parties...propagating prostitution and forbidden acts; publishing pictures and photographs that are contrary to public morality; providing publicity for smoking cigarettes and the taking of narcotics; making false accusations against any of the officials or ordinary members of the society; insulting individuals or organizations; and creating any unidentified radio or television network and program without the supervision of the Voice and Vision Organization [radio and television]."
Iranians reacted angrily to the blocking of websites, particularly personal publication websites known as weblogs. In July, the Ministry of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone announced that the weblogs were blocked due to a private company's mistake. Students at Amir Kabir University threatened to take legal action against President Khatami's cabinet for blocking Iranians' access to their website. In late August, 40 reformist parliamentarians called for Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Minister Ahmad Motamedi to answer their questions about website filtering. They noted that although the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution had approved filtering by the ministry, the filtering was being enforced selectively and for factional reasons.
Website filtering continued as of late November. A committee formed by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution occasionally provides Internet Content Providers (ICP) with a list of sites that should be filtered, and an anonymous ICP manager said in the 25 November issue of the newspaper "Farhang-i Ashti" that this list is logical because it focuses on pornographic sites and those that are anti-regime. A compact disc distributed to ICPs by the Data Processing Company of Iran (http://www.dpi.net.ir), however, listed thousands of websites, even "ordinary and useful" ones such as Google. If all these sites were filtered, the manager said, "it would have been more feasible to shut down everything."
The manager of Azad Net Medium ICP, Kasra Hedayat, said that the Post, Telegraph, and Telephone Ministry prepares the list of sites that will be filtered. Hedayat said, "The policy of filtering was appropriate in most cases, but in certain cases, it extended to shutting down social and political sites, and after some time, they were forced to reopen them." He also said that some Internet Service Providers and ICPs do not filter any sites and do not face any legal restrictions, and this attracts consumers who see this as improved service.
Iran consistently rates poorly in international surveys dealing with media issues. The Freedom House survey released on 18 December, for example, placed Iran in the "Not Free" category. On a scale of 1-7, with 7 being the least free rating, Iran earned scores of 6 for political rights and 6 for civil liberties in the 1 January 2003-31 November 2003 timeframe.
Iran finished in the bottom 10 (160th place out of 166 countries) in the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) world press freedom ranking that was released in October. RSF said in its January 2002 "Annual Report," "With 18 journalists behind bars, Iran is the biggest jail for journalists in the Middle East." Although that number had dropped to 10 by the 2003 "Annual Report," RSF noted, "Iran remained the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East."
These assessments are not encouraging for advocates of free expression, unless one takes the view that there is room for improvement.
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