Freedom of Press in Post-Revolutionary Iran
6 May, 2010 - 15:58 — Kirsten van Kaa...
During the Islamic revolution, the press played a significant part in promoting the demand for the rule of laws enacted by the parliament instead of the decrees issued by the Shah or any religious leader. After the revolution, many journalists in first instance felt relieved of all previous restrictions (Shahidi 2008: 739). However, soon after the revolution, even before the new state had a constitution, the Republic’s first press law was passed by the Revolutionary Council (Shahidi 2008: 746). Even though the Constitution eventually provided for limited freedom of the press, numerous restrictive laws would be imposed later on (Freedom House 2008). How did the freedom of press evolve during the past three post-revolutionary decades?
The first press law imposed tight restrictions on licensing and was used to ban most of the 175 publications that were closed down during the first three post-revolutionary years (Shahidi 2008: 746). The implementing of the law gave rise to the expression of discontent by many papers, arguing that this law was meant to suppress their newly-gained freedom (Shahidi 2008: 739). They also criticized the law for using general, vague and imprecise concepts that would we open for abuse, which would repeatedly form a problem in the decades to come. However, some elements of the press law received praising, like the statement that offenses by the press should be dealt with at a criminal court, in the presence of a jury and the acknowledgment that journalist could from trade unions. Even though, it took years before the first press trials were held in the presence of a jury and a new union was formed (Shahidi 2008: 746).
The Islamic Republic’s second press law got passed in 1986 and provided for a Press Supervisory Board with the power to issue licenses, examine so-called ‘violations’ of the press’ and, if necessary, arrange for legal prosecution by a court. The composition of the Board gave the government decisive influence and due to the vague definition of its powers, it became possible to withdraw newspaper licenses without any court hearing. It also contained three new sections which were called the mission, the rights and the limits of the press, in which numerous new restrictions were formulated. However, these new restrictions were not met with any opposition, due to the distraction the Iraq-Iran war caused (Shahidi 2008: 747).
The three years following the election of president Khatami in 1997 became known as the ‘Spring of Freedom’, but this so-called spring was brought to an end by the 2000 press law (Shahidi 2008: 749). This law, which was again formulated in extremely vague terms, forbade the publication of ideas that are contrary to Islamic principles or detrimental to public rights. The government regularly invokes this vaguely worded legislation to criminalize critical opinions (Freedom House 2008). Since 2007 the freedom of press in Iran deteriorated even further as the regime’s conservative leaders continued to the press, especially when it came to the coverage of women’s rights issues, anti-government demonstrations, the ailing economy, and the development of nuclear technology (Freedom House 2008).
Although public-use of high-speed internet connections was banned in October 2006, internet usage has increased dramatically. The 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.’ Also the access to international news websites and international organizations is increasingly restricted, and there were contradictory reports on the censoring of YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and Flickr (Freedom House 2008).
Nevertheless, websites continue to communicate opinions that the country’s print media would never publish, with at is peak the publications of the post-election protests in the summer of 2009.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Zeytun's editorial policy.