Written by Nadine Wallnöfer

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  • Area: 1,648,195 square kilometres
  • Population: 81.8 Mio.
  • Capital: Teheran
  • State form: Islamic Republic
  • Official language: Persian (Farsi), Arabic
  • Religion: Shia Islam (official)
  • Flag of Iran

    The Islamic Republic of Iran is a presidential theocracy where the main purpose of the media is to service the propagation of Islamic culture. Since 1979, the constitution and all other laws are based on the Islamic Sharia. By law, publications and news media enjoy freedom of expression, provided that what they publish does not violate Islamic principles or the civil code. But the interpretation of the rules underlies the – often unpredictable – arbitrariness of the powerful moral guardians. Very poor ranks in different freedom of press indices (Freedom House 2016: score 90, Reporters without Borders 2016: rank 169), suggest how reality looks like: Journalists in Iran have to fear strict censorship, losing their job, jail sentences or even death and the people’s trust in media is extremely low. Still the Iranian media landscape covers anything from (only state-owned) TV and radio which are the first sources of information to twenty daily papers and the internet to which about one third of the population has access. Additionally, illegal foreign media, like satellite TV, enjoy high popularity and reputation amongst the Iranian people – despite the prohibitions.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Form of government
    As the Islamic Republic of Iran is a presidential theocracy, the Islam has a strong influence in the politics of the country. Since the revolution in 1979, the constitution is based on the Islamic Sharia and the Supreme Leader of the Revolution is not only the religious head but also the highest political office in Iran. He has unlimited power, because his legitimacy is based on the assumption that he, as only deputy of god’s will on earth, can lead the community and prepare them for the arrival of Mahdi (Nasseri, 2007: 28). Theoretically, there exists a division of powers in Iran. But in reality the Leader of the Revolution has direct or indirect control over every political decision by regulating the access to important political offices, appointing or dismissing the members of various committees and controlling the consistency of laws with the Islamic Sharia (Nasseri, 2007: 27-37). Furthermore, according to Martin Gehlen, a Middle East foreign correspondent who was interviewed by Katharina Käfferlein in 2015, all relevant media-political decisions, in broadcasting, press and internet, are made by the Supreme Leader: for example, he appoints the president of the state radio and television networks, who makes organizational decisions and determines the contents of the programme. As the Leader of the Revolution is also the Head of the Judicative, he, too, holds the internet-sovereignty and is responsible for the censorship of the press.

    The president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hassan Ruhani (since 2013), is the second most powerful man in Iran. But still it is not possible for him to enforce his own political ideas if the Supreme Leader does not approve of them (Nasseri, 2007: 34). Martin Gehlen states that since president Ruhani represents a more moderate attitude, we can see an ambivalent picture in Iran, between his new political course and the existing conservative institutions which insist on the old rules. There is an inner conflict for power between the ruling elites of the country, which also influences Iran’s media system (Blum, 2014: 99).

    Legislation and jurisdiction
    Like every law in Iran, the Press Law is based on the Islamic Sharia. According to the third chapter of the Press Law, the press has the right to publish opinions, constructive criticism and expression. Free search and selection of topics and freedom from censorship are granted. Iran has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an international treaty, that “stresses that freedom of expression throughout the world is a universal right. It includes the right of individuals to freely search, receive and share information” (Ansari & Danesh, 2011: 7). In turn, article two of the Press Law names several objectives for the press: They have to educate the public, advance the objectives outlined in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, endeavour to negate the drawing up of false and divisive lines, or, pitting different groups of the community against each other by practices, combat symbols manifestations of imperialistic culture such as extravagance, luxury and immorality and to support the politics and the state. In theory, freedom of the press seems to be given in Iran. But already the preamble to the mass media in the Iranian Constitution states that “the mass media (radio-television) in pursuit of the evolutionary course of the Islamic Revolution, must be in the service of propagating Islamic culture. To this end it must try to benefit from healthy encounter of various thoughts and views. However, it must seriously refrain from propagating destructive and anti-Islamic attitudes”. Furthermore, articles six and seven of the Press Law contain numerous “Limits of the Press” and Principle 24 of the constitution also strongly restricts these freedoms: “Publications and the press shall have freedom of expression unless they violate the essentials of Islam or public rights. Its details shall be set forth by law.” So the Islamic principles directly delimit press freedom and numerous bodies and mechanisms control that these principles are respected (Ansari & Danesh, 2011: 7).

    State censorship
    For example, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) monitors the media, the internet, publications and cultural and civil society events and organizations (Foreign Office Germany, 2016a). Article twenty-one of the Press Law sets that two copies of every publication have to be forwarded to the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Justice Office of the Province where the publication is published, regularly and free of charge. They will then decide whether there will be negative consequences or not. Besides, in addition to the state licensing and mainly state financing (Kheirabadi & Aghagolzadeh, 2012: 992), especially foundations (Bonyads) have a great influence on print media. The supervisory boards of foundations are occupied by influential clerics (Nasseri, 2007: 36). In contrast, commercial advertising plays a rather small role in Iran. Marcus Michaelsen, a communication scientist with a PhD in Islam sciences who was interviewed as an expert by Katharina Käfferlein in 2015, mentioned that depending on their political spectrum, papers are favoured or discriminated in the allocation of ads. In addition, the government controls and subsidizes the allocation of newsprint paper as a precaution against unintended reporting (Shahidi, 2007: 78). The variety and quality of private print media is therefore influenced by the reliance on government subsidies and goodwill and it suffers from economic uncertainty and existential fear.
    Media offers
    State Broadcasting
    More than 80 percent of Iran’s residents receive their news from television, the number one information source in Iran (Freedom House, 2015), followed by the press which 45 percent of the participants of the University of Pennsylvania´s 2011-2012 report on media consumption in Iran named as their second most important information source. With 38 percent friends and family were the third most important source of information (Wojcieszak, Smith & Enayat, 2013: 11). But in Iran, television and radio are both owned by the government, controlled by the state and they reflect official ideology, whereas the internet and the press offer a wider range of opinions (BBC 2016). Unfortunately, there were no current figures for media outreach in Iran to be found. Still there are several surveys about the Iranian people’s media use.

    Due to Article 175 of the constitution, private broadcasting is forbidden (Freedom House 2015). The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the state-run TV broadcaster, operates five nationwide channels, a news channel, about 30 provincial channels, several international channels, eight nationwide radio networks, a number of provincial stations and an external service. The director of the broadcaster is responsible for the technical transfer and the compilation of content, his work is controlled by a supervisory board (Nasseri, 2007: 62). Although the IRIB has many resources, according to Marcus Michaelsen they are not used to their full potential and so the produced TV program is of poor quality. Still 86 percent of the Iranians name IRIB as their most important information source on TV, followed by the (illegal) BBC Persian TV. Only 26 percent of the Iranians name radio as one of their three most important sources of information and radio is a lot more popular among the older generation. The 24-hour national station Radio Payam (Message Radio) was chosen as the most important station by 31 percent, followed by Radio Javan (Youth Radio) with 22 percent and local stations with 16.5 percent (Wojcieszak, Smith & Enayat, 2013: 13-15).

    Illegal Satellite TV
    As mentioned above, there are no private, independent broadcasters in Iran, but about 20 foreign Persian-language TV stations are broadcasting on (illegal since 1994) satellite TV and can be received in Iran (CIA, 2016). Nevertheless, Marcus Michaelsen affirmed that there are in-home communities of large apartment blocks, which offer a limited and officially approved satellite television program. And according to government figures, the number of illegal owners of satellite dishes, and therefore recipients of forbidden international TV, is estimated to be about 30 percent. This is largely tolerated by the authorities and it can be assumed that the actual number is significantly higher (Amirani, 2012) and still rising (Freedom House, 2015). That phenomenon can be explained by the population’s little confidence in Iranian media. According to an Iranian Citizen who lives in Teheran the general tenor is to better form their own opinion because the past showed that the domestic news and media are generally filtered, influenced and manipulated. Therefore, especially the foreign media – regardless of prohibitions – enjoy a high popularity which Martin Gehlen and both interviewed Iranian citizens who still live in Iran consistently affirm. This affects not only news programs but also cultural content. Especially the American Exile Iran Community in Los Angeles and their Persian-language media offers from the San Fernando Valley or BBC Persian have great influence in Iran. Stations from Europe, the UK and the US inform citizens about dissident content that is not displayed in official Iranian media (Amirani, 2012).

    It is also reflected in their media usage, that large parts of Iranian civil society are informed and well educated. Whereby in this context an urban-rural divide is revealed (Federal Agency for Civic Education 2009). Approximately 86.8 percent of the Iranian population can read and write (CIA 2016). Iranian citizens see the press as their second source, especially the conservative daily Hamshahri (Wojcieszak, Smith & Enayat, 2013: 4-25).

    Iranian print market
    Considering the Iranian print market, according to Marcus Michaelsen also private newspapers and magazines can be found next to the state media. The print sector covers opinions from the entire political spectrum as well as special interest magazines. Again, the newspapers with the highest circulation and influence represent a conservative editorial position or the government directly operates them (Freedom House, 2015). And despite the dual system, many of the private print media are influenced by the state and belong to government-related persons or organisations. Many private media represent the opinions of certain political groups or serve as party-mouthpiece (Samii, 1999: 9). Overall, in Iran there are 17 news agencies, 16 daily papers in Persian language, four English-language newspapers and three business papers (German Embassy Teheran 2016a). In 2008, the figure was still 32 daily newspapers with a circulation of 26 per 1000 population (Khiabany, 2008: 27). Despite the relatively high number of newspapers the circulation is low outside the larger cities (Samii, 1999: 6). As mentioned above, the conservative daily newspaper Hamshahri is the most important newspaper for 41 percent of the Iranians, followed by Iran’s oldest local newspaper Khorasan which 16 percent named as number one newspaper. Number three (with 7 percent) is the daily provincial paper Khabare Jonub (Wojcieszak, Smith & Enayat, 2013: 15). The existence of liberal opposition press offers is, among other things, limited through the process of licensing. The right of licensing lies with the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry (Samii, 1999: 7).

    The internet
    In addition to the traditional media, the internet plays an important role in the Islamic Republic of Iran – especially amongst the younger generations. About 57.2 percent of the Iranian population have internet access (Internet World Stats, 2016). Especially during the protest movement in 2009, the society used blogs most frequently, because despite the censorship, the virtual space allows them to speak up. The internet is the self-confident civil society’s chance to mitigate the tyranny. According to the Reporters Without Borders, Iran belongs to the greatest enemies of the internet (Reporters Without Borders, 2014: 25-28). The government has one of the largest internet filtering systems in the world and many foreign news sites on the internet, as well as popular social networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are locked (Foreign Office Germany, 2016b). In Iran access to websites with pornographic content is easier than to websites with government criticism (Reporters Without Borders, 2014: 25).

    Two of the interviewed Iranian citizens explained that to circumvent the censorship, Iranians use VPNs and proxies, but their use is illegal and suspected to be just another spy tool of the government (Wojcieszak, Smith & Enayat, 2013: 22). To control the online activities of Iranian citizens, the national “Halal Internet” (with no access to the world wide web) has been developed in cooperation with China (Reporters Without Borders, 2014: 26). According to an Iranian Citizen from Teheran despite the national Halal Internet every citizen can buy a very expensive terminal with access to the international internet (Federal Agency for Civic Education, 2011), but the speed of the international internet is heavily throttled (Lee, 2013). It has to be mentioned that even though the Iranian government is strongly modernising and expanding the cable and wireless services, there are still several thousand villages that presently are still not connected to telephone service (CIA, 2016) which most likely causes a digital divide between rural and urban areas.
    Journalists' autonomy
    Education and professionalization
    There are different ways to become a journalist in Iran. The majority of Iran’s journalists has a university degree, sometimes even a Master’s degree or PhD (Wojcieszak, Brouillette & Smith, 2013: 6). Marcus Michaelsen explains that because their jobs are not secure, editorial departments are closed or withdrawn from the market, especially many older journalists with families choose other branches. According to Philip Breu, a photographer who has already travelled to Iran and who was also interviewed as an expert on the Iranian Media System, in Iran there is no advocacy group which stands for the protection of the rights of journalists. To obtain a newspaper or magazine license, the applicant should be an Iranian citizen, over 25 years old and not have a criminal record. In addition, he must have at least a bachelor’s degree and believe in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to the Press Law the application for a license takes about five months. Depending on the political situation, however, in the past the duration varied considerably. The print market is largely determined by the respective government influences (Toulany, 2008: 55-56). Awarded licenses may be withdrawn by the ministry at any time: alone in 2000 more than 22 newspapers and magazines were banned (Khiabany & Sreberny, 2001: 218-220).

    State repression and punishment
    Journalists are not only prosecuted for religious offenses; they are also held liable for publishing government-critical statements. Criticism of the system of government in Iran is equated with a coup attempt. Both domestic and foreign journalists in Iran therefore work under continuous observation and must face penalties at all times. Hence, the self-censorship is particularly high. In case of non-compliance or contravention the individual journalist, but also the licensees and editors can be accused and prosecuted (Samii, 1999: 1-9). Penalties are carried out according to the specifications of the Sharia and the Islamic Penal Code of Iran. The range of delinquent offenses ranges from published “libels and revilements” (articles 697, 698, 670), on attacks against public morality (article 640) to threats to national security and insulting the religious saints and the civil servants (articles 513, 514).

    The insult of Islamic saints or the Supreme Leader of the Revolution is the worst crime that an Iranian citizen or journalist can commit. If the insult is seen as similar to the derogatory talk about the Prophet Muhammad, it is even punishable by death. This law manifests the limit which media makers in Iran should not exceed. According to Marcus Michaelsen, the problem is that other taboos are exposed to extreme arbitrariness and depending on the struggle for power of political elites. Although the media laws are firmly anchored in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, they are tightened or loosened depending on the respective government and control of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution. Thus, the daily work of Iranian Journalists is marked by uncertainty. Two of the interviewed Iranian citizens confirmed that there is a total arbitrariness within the law.

    Foreign correspondent Martin Gehlen and photographer Philipp Breu state that there are “red, yellow or green lines” which indicate boundaries of the agenda-setting, but change from time to time, what makes the journalists’ work unpredictable. Although due to Martin Gehlen some of the red lines are well known to all journalists (such as the criticism of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution). With the yellow lines one never knows exactly whether this is allowed or not, because they strongly depend on the political climate. Ali Nazari, editor of Arzesh Newspaper formulated the dilemma of journalists as follows: “Every time the press in Iran is warned by officials, we are told that we have crossed a red line, although no one has bothered to tell us where that red line is“ (Samii, 1999: 5) and in April 1999, the newspaper Neshat headlined: ”How Should We Write the News?” (Samii, 1999: 1). According to Marcus Michaelsen the Iranian journalists always need to test off the limits of their work. He says “The press will print and then just have to live with the consequences. (…) This is a matter of experience, a balancing act, again and again”. Marcus Michaelsen mentioned that a well-known Iranian journalist summarizes the working conditions of Iranian journalists like this: “Writing is as if you walk across the minefield and you do not know how far you can get and when you step on the mine”. “Beyond direct state repression – harassment, arrests, imprisonment – Iranian journalists face a myriad of regulatory and bureaucratic controls that restrict editorial freedom and the flow of information between journalists and citizens” (Wojcieszak, Brouillette & Smith, 2013: 5).

    The courts, who according to Dieter Karg from Amnesty International are also not independent and often violate the international rules for a fair trial, decide about the (exact) penalty. The threat of these arbitrary penalties encourage the strong journalistic self-censorship in Iran. These limitations of journalistic work are also addressed in the country rankings of Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House. The Islamic Republic of Iran ranks very poorly in both indices: In the Freedom House 2016 report Iran scores 90 (0=best, 100=worst) and in the report of Reporters Without Borders 2016, the country was ranked 169 (1=best, 180=worst)). This is not just a recent development, but it is based on a long tradition of press restrictions in Iran. Since 1992 five journalists got killed in Iran and nineteen journalists were arrested only in 2015. Reason for the arrests was regime-critical reporting in fourteen cases, five journalists were arrested without a charge (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2016).

    Journalist´s self-perception
    Nevertheless, according to the interviewed Iranian citizen who lives in Teheran critical issues are still addressed in the Iranian media, often indirectly or as satire. Iranian journalists do not feel free to work investigative or to question the government. Unlike in western countries, the Iranian journalists do not see themselves as watchdogs, but with their coverage they primarily want to serve the public. Unfortunately, due to the numerous restrictions the Iranian journalist´s credibility is undermined and thus they have lost the peoples trust. Iranian journalists do most of their research on the internet. Interviews and traditional sources to obtain information are only in second place. Blocked social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are rarely used for research by media professionals. Nevertheless, many journalists use circumvention tools, as mentioned above, to bypass the blockages on the internet. Iranian journalists see the access to news and information and the ability to inform the society as a great advantage of their work. Restricted press freedom, poor payment and uncertainty are the biggest challenges for journalists in Iran. But despite numerous restrictions and threats, most Iranian journalists are generally satisfied with their work (Wojcieszak, Brouillette & Smith, 2013: 7-21).

    Foreign journalists
    Similar to Iranian journalists, their foreign colleagues have to contend with the strong influence of the government. According to Martin Gehlen already when applying for the work visas foreign journalists have to submit written articles, so it can be checked whether the applicant reports conform to the system or dissident. If a foreign journalist gets a visa, he can stay in Iran for only 72 hours. On-site, they can request that the visa may be extended up to seven days. Foreign journalists are forced to work with a supposedly private media service, which provides him with the contacts, makes appointments and acts as a translator. The media services officially are private, but the rumour persists that they are associated with the secret service, because a log is generated and delivered about every action of the foreign journalists. There also is no free choice of locations for research or the supervisor. (German Embassy Teheran, 2016b) If a foreign journalist violates the Iranian Press Law, norms and standards, he must expect to not get a visa anymore in the future.
    This country report is largely based on a seminar paper composed by Angela Back, Katharina Käfferlein and Maj-Britt Peters at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich in 2015. All interviews have been conducted by them from December 15, 2014 to February 15, 2015. The author thanks Ms. Back, Ms. Käfferlein and Ms. Peters for their work, without which this country report wouldn’t have been possible.

    Interviewed experts (remote via Skype, telephone, email)
    • Martin Gehlen, foreign correspondent for the Middle East, reports about Iran, based in Cairo
    • Philipp Breu, photographer, has studied Islam sciences, has already travelled to Iran
    • Dieter Karg, teacher, also speaker of the Iran coordination group of Amnesty International
    • Marcus Michaelsen, communication scientist and PhD in Islam sciences (Thesis: “The role of the internet in the transformation process of the Islamic Republic of Iran”)
    • Iranian Citizen A.A., lives in Teheran
    • Iranian Citizen O.A., lives in Germany, Family members in Iran
    • Iranian Citizen L.N., lives in Iran
    Related Links
    Recommended citation form
    Nadine Wallnöfer: Iran. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date)

    Maziar Bahari: Journalism in Iran. Source:

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