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Politics and the Press in Iran III

by AFSHIN MARASHI

16 Dec 2010 23:371 Comment

Press and politics in Iran have been intertwined from the very beginning of the country's experiment with modernity. Newspapers and periodicals have served as important forums for Iranians to discuss fundamental questions of social, cultural, and political change. These debates and their historical consequences -- including war, famine, foreign invasion, cultural change, and social and political revolution -- have all been reflected in the pages of Iranian newspapers, magazines, and journals. As these debates have unfolded over the past two centuries, one thing has remained consistent: the relationship between the state and the press has been one of mutual antagonism, with the press, periodical literature, and other media acting as the voice of criticism and dissent within Iranian society, while the state -- whatever its ideological character -- has continued its efforts to censor and control those dissenting voices.

Part I: The Early Years | Part II: Press Under the Pahlavis

Part III: The Revolution and After

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The Revolution

From the mid-1970s onward, the authoritarian Pahlavi regime began to show signs of weakness. Facing increasing pressure from human rights organizations such as International PEN, Amnesty International, and the International Commission of Jurists, as well as the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the Shah began to relax some longstanding restrictions on freedoms of expression and association. A number of political prisoners were released, political organizations gradually began to publicly organize again, and the press began to take chances on what it would publish. In the summer of 1977, a series of "open letters to the Shah" were published in several important Iranian dailies. These open letters, criticizing the lack of political freedom in Iran, were signed by leading intellectuals, prominent lawyers, and political veterans of the Mosaddegh era. After almost 25 years of official control of the media, the publication of these open letters represented a major test of the Shah's overtures towards liberalization.

Even more important than the open letters published by the secular-liberal wing of the opposition was the flurry of printed materials and other forms of media that began to circulate from the religious opposition. The secular and religious opposition movements had maintained an uneasy collaborative relationship since the constitutional period, but as early as 1965 the political opposition to the Shah began to take on increasingly religious characteristics.

Exiled from Iran for his public denunciations of the Shah's policies in the early 1960s, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini increasingly became the figurehead of this religious opposition. With the liberalization trend that began in 1977, Khomeini's supporters started to publicize his political pronouncements. From official exile -- first in Najaf, Iraq, and then in Paris -- Khomeini, with the help of a large network of revolutionary students and clerics both within and outside of Iran, began to circulate his sermons on audiocassette. These cassettes, calling for the overthrow of the monarchy, became the main form of revolutionary communication between the revolutionary religious leadership outside of Iran and the growing religious opposition movement inside the country. From early 1978 until the final overthrow of the monarchy on February 11, 1979, it was the underground media -- the galvanizing force of sermons delivered via audiocassette, along with hand-pressed leaflets, impromptu revolutionary communiqués, the ad hoc alternative press, and radical graffiti written on city walls -- that was the basis of the mass movement that overthrew the monarchy. Once again, as had been the case during the constitutional period, the media (in both official and underground forms) came to play a central role in building popular support for radical change in Iranian political life.

The Press between Reformists and Conservatives

In the years since the revolution, moments of free expression and a liberalized popular press have alternated with periods of state-imposed control, censorship, and even the shuttering of publications and the imprisonment of journalists -- maintaining the dynamic between press and politics that has characterized modern Iranian history.

In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, the conservative religious forces -- moving to consolidate power while excluding the secular liberal and leftist groups that had also participated in the Revolution -- made a concerted effort to impose a new official line on the press and media. The former Ministry of Information, which under the Shah had been the main body controlling the press, was renamed the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Its role remained essentially the same, however: to censor the media and enforce the ideological line of the Islamist government. Many of the major dailies were sold or expropriated by the revolutionary courts and turned into organs of the official Islamist position. The important newspapers Ettela'at and Kayhan were in this way turned into outlets for the political views of the revolutionary government. Radio and television were similarly subordinated to revolutionary ideology, with programming devoted to a concerted policy of Islamizing Iranian society.

It is in this context that the more recent developments in the relationship between media and politics in Iran should be understood. With the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, politics in Iran entered a new, yet familiar, phase in which Iranians once again began to test the boundaries of democratic openness and political freedom. Periodic calls for democratic reform, including the demand for the freedom of the press, have been central to Iranian politics since the beginning of the nation's modern history.

Following Khatami's election, the open expression of political dissent in the media became one of the key areas in which Iranians began to test the limits of the new political liberalization. What followed was a brief period of remarkable freedom in the mainstream Iranian media, with the launch of hundreds of newspapers and periodicals associated with an increasingly assertive democratic reform movement. These newspapers and periodicals initiated bold discussions about human rights, women's rights, press rights, democratic pluralism, and the role of religion in politics. By 1999 -- the 20th anniversary of the Revolution -- the balance between the democratic impulse of modern Iranian history and the tradition of ideological authoritarianism had decidedly, if temporarily, shifted in the direction of Iran's democratic tradition.

The liberal interlude of the Khatami years would not last long, however. By 2000, the conservative forces were once again reasserting ideological control over all forms of media and political discourse. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Press Supervisory Board, the judiciary, as well as "special revolutionary courts" began a major crackdown on the reformist press, revoking the publication licenses of dozens of newspapers and periodicals based on a strict interpretation of the Iranian Press Law of 1986. This law, and its subsequent amendments, greatly curtailed the boundaries of press freedom by establishing vaguely defined standards of permissible and impermissible speech, making it illegal to publish articles arbitrarily deemed to be "counterrevolutionary," or to "offend the leader of the Revolution and the recognized religious authorities," or to "create discord among social groups."

With swift, ruthless efficiency, the conservative forces had, by the fall of 2000, used the legal and institutional apparatus of the Islamic Republic to close large numbers of reformist daily newspapers and jail many of the journalists who worked for them. While the initial focus of the crackdown was on the daily press, weekly and monthly magazines also felt the increased scrutiny of the authorities, with publication licenses stripped and employees facing arbitrary arrest. The control of political discourse on university campuses and in academic and scholarly book publication were other areas in which the conservative authorities increasingly came to focus their efforts.

Iran's Digital Revolution and the "Tehran Spring" of 2009

And yet, even as these traditional forms of media and political discourse were muted as a result of the state authorities' concerted crackdown, new domains of political communication were simultaneously opening up. The years following the beginning of the crackdown on the reformist press coincided with the beginning of Iran's digital revolution. From 2000, onward new communication technologies -- enabled by the proliferation of the Internet, cellphone technology, and other forms of digital media -- made a dramatic entry into Iran's political culture. This maturing of the digital age, and its accompanying forms of "new media," worked to empower Iran's civil society at the precise moment when conservative authorities were clamping down on traditional forms of media and communication.

Several years after the publication of what is generally considered the first mainstream Persian-language weblog ("blog") by Hossein Derakhshan in 2001, the internet's global "blogosphere" had grown to include approximately 100,000 Persian-language blogs, leading many to describe Persian as the second most prolific language in the global blogosphere. The meteoric rise of the Persianate blogosphere had profound implications for Iranian culture and politics. Most immediately, the blogs very quickly became an alternative venue of political expression and fostered a new genre of "online journalism." As an unregulated and uncontrolled form of communication the Persianate blogs remained initially beyond the jurisdiction or control of state authorities, and had a surprisingly effective role in shaping the nature of debates inside Iran in the aftermath of the crackdown on the mainstream media. Many of the former daily and weekly periodicals that had been closed during the period of the crackdown found themselves reborn as online newspapers published on servers outside of Iran. This new form of dissident "cyber journalism" came to demonstrate, once again, the perennial resilience of the Iranian press when confronted by new forms of state censorship.

The most dramatic expression of the political potential of Iran's digital revolution came in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election of 2009. As protestors gathered to challenge the results of the election in the urban space of Tehran and other Iranian cities, the new media technologies played a crucial role in coordinating the activities and direction of the movement. In addition to traditional forms of word-of-mouth communication, Iranian protestors now made use of cellphones, email, text messaging, and Twitter accounts to communicate in real-time with each other and with supporters around the world. These new forms of communication and social networking technologies not only helped to spread eyewitness information about events as they were happening, but just as importantly they enabled protestors to coordinate their activities and accelerate the mobilization of demonstrators in certain parts of the city. Most dramatic of all was the cellphone video of the June 20 shooting death of Neda Agha-Soltan by Basij militia on a Tehran street. The haunting cellphone video of her slaying was quickly uploaded to YouTube, making the slain female protestor an international symbol of the Iranian democracy movement.

Digital Authoritarianism

Despite the tremendous potential of Iran's digital revolution, there are also clear limits to the effectiveness of new media as a tool of political mobilization. As has been the case in earlier epochs of Iranian history, as new forms of media emerge to challenge the authority of the state, the state in turn has found new techniques to assert its authority. In the aftermath of the contested presidential election, the state authorities of the Islamic Republic have launched a new wave of political repression aimed at the digital press and new media. In addition to periodically shutting down cellphone networks and dramatically reducing Internet bandwidth speeds, offending websites are routinely blocked, computers and satellite dishes are seized, email correspondence is used as evidence of political crimes, and social networking sites such as Facebook have been used by authorities to "map" the network of friends and associates of particular activists. While the Islamic Republic was slow to learn new methods of imposing control in the digital domain, since the summer of 2009, authorities have stepped up their efforts in this regard. While control of digital media is still difficult, and cyber dissidents continue to operate inside and outside the country, it is also possible to describe Iran as having entered a new era of "digital authoritarianism" in which prosecutions for "web crimes" have entered into the juridical vocabulary of police repression.

What is also clear, however, is that the current phase of state control of the Iranian media should be seen in the broader context of the country's modern history. Since the dawn of the 20th century and the introduction of modern technologies of mass communication, there has been an ongoing tension between the democratic impulse of Iranian society and the tradition of political control and authoritarianism by the increasingly powerful Iranian state. Every major turning point in Iran's modern history has been defined by this struggle over freedom of expression in the media. As in earlier stages of Iran's history, today's democratic opposition has made extensive use of the latest technologies to circulate news, opinion, and calls for reform. Despite ongoing and novel techniques of media control, the contemporary generation of Iranian journalists are following in the country's by now long democratic tradition by asking brave questions, circumventing the authority of the state, and working to bring progressive voices into the public sphere.

Afshin Marashi is Associate Professor of History, University of Kansas, and author of Nationalizing Iran: Culture, Power, and the State, 1870-1940

Further Reading: "Memorandum on Media Regulation in the Islamic Republic of Iran," by Article 19: The Global Campaign for Free Expression, 2006, available here; Nasrin Alavi, ''We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs" (Soft Skull Press, 2005); Abbas Milani, "Iran's Cyberjihad," in Foreign Policy.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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1 Comment

"Hussain! Protect the creative minds"
in societies where there are restrictions on journalistic/information expressions; creative arts becomes the second vehicle of expression. being a Shiite Muslim myself; i browsed for new art forms on google and found Mukhtar namah clips on youtube. Surely you need the eyes, ears and perception to feel the art form; which might be saying it all in a subtle manner. one clip revolving round Zuhair Qain Bajli shows how Imam entourage is fired with arrows when they are offering Zuhr prayers on Ashura;because the security forces are scared that Imam image of offering paryer in the heat of battle would expose the estbalishment own bankrupcy and baseless lies. the same theme is communicated in the neatly clipped beards of Omar SAAD and shmir that resemble any IRGC toughie tied so closely with the establishment!!!!!

Naqi Akbar / December 18, 2010 11:42 AM