Can Iran’s Censored Journalists Report on the Nuclear Deal?
Can Iran’s Censored Journalists Report on the Nuclear Deal?
30 June 2015 by Mansoureh Farahani

The outcome of nuclear talks will affect the lives of millions of Iranians. So as world leaders gather in Vienna to hammer out a final agreement, Iranians are watching and listening closely — following news alerts on radio and television, reading analysis in the daily papers, monitoring hashtags on social media sites.

Iran’s journalists and media certainly publish widely on nuclear talks, and they work hard to cover crucial, breaking news and analysis. But it is important to know how censorship and restrictions on this type of reporting shapes and influences what is published — whether it is news, features or interviews. How do these restrictions affect journalists and their ability to cover key events?

According to Iranian media law, “Publications and the press have freedom of expression, except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public”. The details of this exception have been specified by law. Some of the key exceptions are:

  • Publishing atheistic articles or on issues that are prejudicial to Islamic codes, or promoting subjects which might damage the foundation of the Islamic Republic;
  •  Propagating obscene and religiously forbidden acts and publishing indecent images and publishing on issues which violate public decency;
  • Propagating luxury and extravagance;
  • Creating discord between and among social walks of life, especially by raising ethnic and racial issues;
  • Encouraging and instigating individuals and groups to act against the security, dignity and interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran within or outside the country;
  • Disclosing and publishing classified documents, orders and issues, or disclosing the secrets of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic, military maps and fortifications, publishing closed-door deliberations of the Islamic Consultative Assembly or private proceedings of courts of justice and investigations conducted by judicial authorities without legal permit;
  • Insulting Islam and its sanctities, or offending the Supreme Leader of Iran and recognized religious authorities (senior Islamic jurisprudents);
  • Publishing libel against officials, institutions, organizations and individuals in the country or insulting legal or other persons who are lawfully respected, even by means of pictures or caricatures; and
  • Committing plagiarism or quoting articles from the deviant press, parties and groups that oppose Islam (inside and outside the country) in such a manner as to propagate such ideas (the limits of such offenses shall be defined by the executive bylaw).

Restrictions are not limited to the items listed above. In addition, members of the press must obey and follow any instructions they receive from the Supreme National Security Council. These letters, usually addressed to editors-in-chief, issue instructions to the press, and are confidential, which means the details of the letter, and the fact that the letter has been sent in the first place, cannot be published or disclosed.

Bijan Safsari, founder of and former editor-in-chief for several Iranian newspapers, including Azad newspaper and Sedaye Edalat newspaper, shares his experience: “I worked in Iran until four years ago. We received a confidential letter almost every month from the Iran Supreme National Security Council. There was not any schedule, which means we could receive a letter anytime, even out of working hours, and those were urgent. Once, I received a confidential letter at 9pm, when the newspaper was ready for print. We had to delete the most important news of the day, which was about Isfahan’s Friday prayer leader resigning. I ignored the letter, and the following day I was arrested and my newspaper was banned”. 

The number of Supreme National Security Council directives increased dramatically during Ahmadinejad's period — and many of them effectively called for direct censorship of the Iranian press. Some letters dictated how the press could cover news about specific topics, including the Iran nuclear program and negotiations around it. 

When it comes to the nuclear talks, Iranian journalists are not allowed to interview employees from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or publish details about them or what they have said. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization controls the news, issuing announcements and statements that the media can reproduce or report. Very few other expert opinions are allowed in the press.

Reports on Iran’s nuclear program must concentrate on Iran’s peaceful initiatives, and on the role the nuclear program plays in advancing Iran’s scientific and technological achievements.  

Coverage of the talks themselves has been carefully managed. The press are forbidden from directly republishing or translating articles from the foreign media about negotiations, as set out in a Supreme National Security Council letter dated December 12, 2013. Iran’s media has been encouraged to refer to Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization website as a principal and main source for information.

Changes under Rouhani — and a Culture of Self-censorship

But overall, it would appear that President Hassan Rouhani’s government is not willing to fully replicate the Ahmadinejad-era strategy, at least when it comes to the nuclear talks. The number of directives has fallen since Rouhani was elected, and many recent Security Council letters include suggestions or recommendations rather than strict orders.

For example, one recent letter asked the media not to raise false hopes among Iranians, and pointed out that sanctions relief would not be a solution for all of Iran’s problems. The letter suggested the press continue to write about it, conducting interviews and giving a more balanced view of the situation. Guidance sent out at the beginning of the nuclear talks in 2013, however, asked media reports to focus on Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif rather than on Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, who has been in the role since the Ahmadinejad era.   

The Security Council is still a guiding force in controlling what the media can and cannot say. “Instructions are not limited to letters,” says Safsari. “A monthly meeting takes place at the Ministry for Islamic Guidance and Culture between culture ministers, chief editors, other members of the media and authorities from different organizations, including Revolutionary Guards Special Forces, the police, or the  Ministry of Intelligence.” What journalists can and cannot report — the red lines of Iran’s ruling establishment — are discussed during these meetings.

But as anyone who follows current affairs and politics in Iran knows, journalists are also bound and restricted by unwritten red lines and limitations. They are often also caught out by vaguely worded laws. Certain topics are deemed sensitive or taboo, including discussion of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The country’s media law stipulates that journalists are forbidden from insulting or offending Khamenei, but, in reality, anything that can be construed as slight criticism of him or his policies can result in prosecution and almost blanket censorship, as one journalist, Ahmad Zeidabadi, discovered. After serving a six-year jail sentence, he was sent straight into exile and banned from journalism. Also off limits is the situation in Syria.

These are the red lines, and if journalists cross them, defying government guidance, they risk retaliation: prosecution, arrest, jail time. They could jeopardize their career and their future. Many try to avoid conflict, and many have become conservative. As a result, self-censorship has increasingly become a mainstay for Iran’s journalists. 

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