For the past 39 years, the regime’s control of news and information has been implacable and its persecution of media independence has been unparalleled. The exact number of journalists arrested and convicted during this dark period in Iran’s history – especially during the purge years – is still not officially known.
RSF has tallied abuses since Mohammad Khatami became president in 1997. At least 350 media outlets have been closed, more than 800 journalists and citizen-journalists have been detained and interrogated and around 500 of them have been given prison sentences ranging from three months to 19 years. All have been denied their rights. Millions of Internet pages of freely and independently reported news and information have been censored.
Citizen-journalists active on social networks are nowadays at the heart of the fight for freedom of news and information and political change in Iran.
In what Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei calls “the freest country in the world,” no independent media has survived the past 39 years of police and judicial harassment. Since 2000, Khamenei has waged a merciless war against the emergent reformist press, calling it the “operational base of foreign enemies within the country.”
Despite having resisted, the pro-reform media have been losing the resources they need to cover developments freely and independently. And to tighten control and censorship even more, a newly proposed law will turn journalists into civil servants who will get their press cards directly from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
The regime’s persecution of the freedom to inform does not just target domestic media. it also targets the international media, even if the regime has always tried to keep up certain appearances.
Toeing the official line
According to a list on the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Orientation’s official website, a total of 155 media outlets from 32 countries have bureaux in Iran that are staffed by a total of 305 foreign journalists.
Officially, they include 75 radio and TV outlets but the real number is smaller because each of the different language services of media outlets such as France 24 or Al Jazeera are counted separately. Fifteen of them are Lebanese or Iraqi outlets such as Al-Manar and Al-Mayadin (Hezbollah’s two TV channels) and Al-Tajah and Al-Fart (Iraq’s Shiite TV channels). The latter four outlets are wholly funded by the Iranian regime.
There are 14 foreign news agencies. Aside from AP, AFP and Itar Tass, most are from pro-Iranian Muslim countries. The Islamic Radio and Television Union, created and funded by the Islamic Republic, consists of 210 Muslim media outlets from 35 countries, its website says. Most of these outlets are officially regarded as foreign media, although funded by the regime. As well as relaying propaganda, they constitute a fake news world network that helps to suppress the freedom to inform. They mainly carry the same news reports as the Iranian state media.
Other foreign news agencies in Iran are closely watched and harassed. A former Tehran-based AFP reporter said: “The regime exercises its control by placing journalists within the agency who can tell the authorities what’s going on there, or by threatening the foreign journalists who don’t accept the censor’s rules. There have been several cases of journalists who have even been accused of indecent behaviour and have been threatened with imprisonment.”
Since 28 March 2012, when the Iranian authorities withdrew the accreditation of the Reuters journalists in Tehran for “propaganda against the government,” Reuters has had no bureau in Iran. As a result, Reuters nowadays often covers Iranian news more freely than the agencies that still have a bureau there, which have to censor themselves to avoid losing their accreditation or to avoid harassment or even prosecution in Iran.
Choosing “good” journalists
Aside from the Muslim countries with a media presence, the foreign journalists in Iran are either correspondents who are based there or visiting reporters. In both cases, the regime prefers them to be of Iranian origin and to have dual nationality (one of them Iranian). Dual nationals can be accused of spying at any time, so it is easier to control them and make them accept that certain subjects are off limits.
It must be pointed out that Iranian law does not permit dual nationality. Dual nationals are regarded as Iranians, and as Iranians alone. Several dual national journalists have been jailed in recent years for “collaborating with foreigners” or “espionage.” They include Roxana Saberi and Jason Rezaian.
On condition of anonymity, a dual national journalist with an international media outlet told RSF: “Two days after I applied to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for accreditation, I received a call to discuss my situation. They asked me to go to a hotel. I asked who I was talking to, knowing full well it was the brothers from intelligence. Two men were waiting for me there. Very politely, they made it clear that I should not cross the red lines, which are covering Khamenei or the opposition and, in general, showing ‘the decline in the situation.’ Sometimes they sent me phrases to insert in my articles. For them, neutrality and balance meant censorship. I cooperated during the two years I was in Iran.”
A committee consisting of representatives of three ministries – Culture and Islamic Guidance, Foreign Affaires and Intelligence – has a file on each foreign journalist and media outlet. The attitude of the journalists and their media determines whether they get the visas they need. Reporting critical of the regime leads to negative points in the file. But the committee takes account not only of coverage of Iran but also of international coverage, especially of countries regarded as Iran’s enemies, such as Israel and the United States.
According the information obtained by RSF, several journalists who received visas and are currently in Iran have been prevented for moving about freely in the capital. In particular, they have been prevented from covering protests and from contacting government opponents or the families of political prisoners.
One of world’s most authoritarian regimes, Iran is ranked 165th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.