Promoting Civil Liberties and Democracy in Iran through Media

Posted in Iran | 22-Jul-05 | Author: Eleni Klotsikas

Conference paper edited with the permission of the Aspen Institute, Berlin

Aspen Berlin Conference
“Iran and Democracy in the Greater Middle East”

May 23-24, 2005 – Amman



Governmental media policy in Iran is about manipulation and oppression. Iran's ruling clerics, acutely aware of the explosive potential behind free media, have always moved hard against regime critics using a dictatorial system to suffocate each and every sign of pluralism. According to Reporters Without Borders, Iran remains the biggest prison for journalists in the Greater Middle East. Writers and journalists, who refuse to function as a mouthpiece for the government, risk their very freedom at the hands of justice arbitrarily applied by Islamic hardliners close to religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Journalists are on especially dangerous ground when they write about Islam, the activities of dissidents, the country's nuclear program or relations to the United States. It is often unclear where the "red line" is, as many decisions are made arbitrarily by the Mullahs.

The brutality of the regime and its harsh treatment of critical journalists have been well-documented by human rights groups like Human Rights Watch, for example in the report "Like the Dead in their Coffins." The study documents systematic torture, illegal prisons, and secret trials. Particularly well known, of course, is the case of the Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, who was beaten to death in her prison cell in June 2003. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shirin Ebadi tried in vain to uncover details of the case.

The massive oppression and the use of torture serve as enormous deterrents, but even these extreme measures have not silenced regime critical voices. Independent voices, sometimes working under different names, continue to open new papers even after the regime closes other ones down. However, it always seems to be only a matter of time until one has crossed the "red line" again. Most independent newspapers have disappeared from kiosks. Independent journalists rely increasingly on the Internet. Of course, the Internet is also not entirely free from the influence of the Mullahs. They limit and control access to the Internet by means of state-run or private providers with license. Such officially licensed providers are obliged to filter certain websites, and users must sign a declaration pledging not to visit anti-Islamic websites. However, thorough control of the Internet is not possible, and as a result many dissidents use the world-wide web as a platform to disseminate information and to exchange and publish views. Young people in particular turn increasingly to the Internet. There are an estimated 64,000 Persian language blogs, trailing just behind those in English, French, and Portuguese. In addition, there are hundreds of Iranian blogs in English. Regular protests and demonstrations by Tehran's active student movement underscore the fact that resistance to the regime is very much alive in Iran.


In the last years, the domestic power struggle between "conservatives" and "moderates" was largely played out through governmental media policy. President Khatami has consistently emphasized the need for tolerance toward dissidents and for greater freedom of the press in general. In fact, since becoming President in August 1997 hundreds of new newspapers and magazines have been accredited, journalists’ associations and agencies for public relations and advertising have been permitted. While none of these steps towards liberalizing media were comparable to Western norms, more room could have been created for a process of democratization if these measures had been consistently enforced.

However, Khatami's opening of the press met with a strong reaction by the Clerics. According to Reporters Without Borders, some 100 reform-oriented publications have been closed and their editors arrested since 2000. For religious leader Khamenei, like his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini, any criticism of the Islamic Revolution and its regime is considered treason and is treated accordingly. Khamenei has gone as far as directly intervening in the parliamentary process in instances where hardliners in the justice department were unable to prevail. An attempt by parliament in 2000 to liberalize the press law was blocked directly by Khamenei. He had a letter read in parliament, which stated:

"Should the enemies of Islam, the revolution, and the Islamic system take over or infiltrate the press, a great danger would threaten the security, unity, and the faith for the people, and, therefore, I cannot allow myself and other officials to keep quiet in respect of this critical issue .... the current law, to a degree, has been able to prevent the appearance of this great calamity, and similar actions that have been anticipated by the parliamentary committee are not legitimate and not in the interest of the country or the system."


The framework for press freedom in Iran is based on the concept of the Islamic state and is anchored in the Constitution of 1979. A key element of the Constitution is "velayat-e faqih," the "Rule of the Clerics." Stemming originally from the 19th century, this principle had been developed and concretized in exile by Chomeini. It bestows absolute power in one Shiite Cleric or a gremium of Shiite Clerics. Ultimate authority rests with the "leading Cleric" or "Revolutionary Leader." A limited democratic system is subordinate to the theocratic system. The Clerics always have the last word.

According to article 2 of the Constitution, Islam and rule of the Clerics is the defining feature of society, and this naturally applies to the press as well. Freedom to express one's opinion is subordinate to the dictates of the Mullahs as explicitly stated in article 24:

“Publication and Press reports can be presented freely, except when in conflict with the general law and the fundamentals of Islam.”

Moreover, the legal status of the press is established in the Press Law of 1985. In addition to various significant restrictions, this decree makes clear that every newspaper editor must have a permission to operate from the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Leadership and must use exclusively Iranian capital. There is a still another instrument of leverage for the Mullahs: Newspapers and magazines rely on advertisements and paper produced by the state.


The situation for critical journalism has gotten worse since the parliamentary elections in February 2004, in which the conservatives seized control. The biggest threat for journalists comes directly from the Justice Ministry. The Justice Ministry has developed its own intelligence activities against reformers, journalists, and NGO activists. These special units are colloquially referred to as Khamenei’s “obedient parallel institutions." As fanatical storm troopers they brutally break up meetings of dissident politicians, intellectuals, students, and NGO members. Offices of reformist newspapers have been repeatedly raided, with editors being threatened and sometimes arrested.

In the past months, student leaders have been kidnapped and human rights activists have been threatened, including Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shirin Ebadi. Likewise, political, cultural, and journalistic figures have been abducted. Journalists fear that these kinds of practices could be legalized by proposed legislation: Conservative politicians in parliament propose that the pursuit of crimes against state order – previously under the responsibility of the Ministry for Information and Security – should directly fall in the jurisdiction of the judiciary.

Agents of these parallel institutions do not wear uniforms. They apparently control illegal prisons, which do not stand under any institutional control and whose numbers have grown in recent months, according to Human Rights Watch. The names of the prisoners, the budget and information about the administration of these prison camps are allegedly unknown even to official ministry representatives.

According to Reporters Without Borders, journalists who were arrested or abducted for having written critical reports can retain their freedom by submitting a self-degrading public statement of contrition and paying enormous amounts of money. These self-incriminations are often filmed and shown on public television.


Due to a relatively high illiteracy rate, print media, online publications, and weblogs do not play an important role in opinion shaping among the Iranian population. Much higher significance can be attributed to television and radio. This is supported by the result of a nationwide survey conducted by the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Leadership in the summer of 2002, according to which 96.2% of all families own a television set and 80.9% a radio. The daily use of television is, on average, 211 minutes, while the radio is listened to for 85 minutes.[1] In Iran, the operation of television and radio stations is monopolized by the state, commercial radio and television is interdicted.

The Iranian government’s broadcasting service, which houses approximately seven television channels, seven radio channels, three satellite television programs, an Arabic news channel, two foreign television channels, and a radio world service in twelve languages, serves as a pure instrument of governmental propaganda. The Mullahs had soon discovered the manipulative potential of such mass media, and expanded the “Islamic Republic of Iranian Broadcasting” (IRIB), into the largest broadcasting station in the Near and Middle East. The consolidation of broadcasting and regime is also manifest on the level of personnel: The IRIB’s director is directly appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and can be dismissed at any time.

The programs are designed to serve the Islamic leadership and education; entertainment plays a secondary role. Almost all programs are produced in Iran. Due to cultural and religious motivations, the import of foreign programs was drastically reduced after the Islamic revolution. The instrumentalization of the media for the stabilization of the current regime is especially apparent in the proliferation of false information in the main newscasts: in foreign policy, hatred against America and Israel is preached,[2] in domestic policy reports, heavy praise of the regime prevails. Activities of dissidents and freedom fighters, demonstrations, and protests are systematically concealed.

The population’s trust in the Iranian government’s broadcasting service is – as a study conducted by the IRIB itself reveals – quite low. According to a large-scale survey from 1999, 87% of the people polled watch television news on a daily basis; however, only 38% believe in the objectivity and neutrality of the information offered.[3] The author of this piece does not have access to more recent information. In light of the increasing dissatisfaction among the population, one can assume that the lack of trust has similarly intensified.


Satellite television programs run by Iranians in exile, based primarily in Los Angeles, undermine the ideological indoctrination accomplished by state-run television. About a dozen of such stations broadcast their programs daily into Iran. These programs are especially popular among the younger population, as they offer entertainment – especially in the form of music videos, which are not permitted on state television.

In addition to many entertainment programs, the satellite stations also feature programs, which focus on the political situation and violations of human rights in Iran. Moreover, the programs transmit information about resistance movements, student protests, and the general situation of unrest. Some stations seek personal live contact to their audiences by means of telephone calls, fax machines, and the Internet. Iranians use these programs to freely express their resentment and frustration about the political situation in their country. In live shows, exile stations such as National Iran TV (NITV) encourage the population to turn against the regime.

As Zia Ataby, a former Iranian pop-star and current television manager of NITV, explains: “NITV for the Iranian Government is more dangerous than America or other countries and that is why they have tried anything to cut our voice.”

The channels are privately owned and financed primarily by wealthy Iranians in exile. The quantity and diversity of the channels imply that the Iranians in exile conduct their initiatives largely independently from one another.

The following is a small selection of exile channels with their internet addresses[4] without any claim on being complete:

· National Iranian TV (

· Channel One TV (

· Appadana International. Global Persian TV Station (

· IranTV Network (

· Melli TV (

· IPN TV. International Programming Network (

· Pars TV (

· Azadi TV (

· Rang-e-Rang (

· XTV (

· Tamasha TV (

· Tapesh TV. Persian Bradcasting Company (

These channels are intensely feared by representatives of the regime; teenagers are publicly warned “not to be trapped by the evil stations that America has established.” Attempts to jam the stations by means of interfering transmitters are a common method by which the regime attempts to contain the “outsourced democracy.” In the meantime, the regime has reacted with a more effective strategy and called its own satellite programs into being: Jaam-e-Jam1, 2, and 3. These sketch a friendlier picture of Iran, which is more loyal to the regime. The programs are officially directed towards Iranians in exile, but are meant to be seen by Iranians within the country.

Iranians can access information suppressed by the government through western foreign radio services. These are accessible in Farsi by means of short-wave radio. They include the music-oriented Radio Farda by RFE/RL, BBC Persian, which has a clear focus on information, and the Persian radio service of “Deutsche Welle,” which is broadcasted daily for two hours. However, many judge the influence of such radio programs to be quite low, if not negligible – especially in comparison to the Los Angeles-based offensive “Tachangeles.”


The drastic measures taken by the Iranian judiciary in addition to the parallel institutions acting against critics of the regime and proponents for reform create an atmosphere of fear and distrust among the Iranian population. NGO workers and embassy employees have difficulties initiating open dialogue with Iranians concerning the human rights situation, democracy, and the freedom of press. The participation in congresses, conventions, and seminars openly directed against the politics of the regime can result in prison sentences of several years. In 2000, seventeen Iranians who had participated in a congress on religious and political reform, organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany, were arrested upon their return to Iran. Since then, the prevailing sentiment in Europe is that such actions are rather counterproductive. This applies all the more for comparable events within the country.

An employee of a German Embassy responded when asked about this issue: “We would never issue invitations to a seminar in direct opposition to the governing regime as we would endanger people in this manner.”

German efforts to strengthen democracy, human rights, and the freedom of press in Iran take these circumstances into consideration and are thus designed very prudently. Projects such as the “Initiative Freie Presse” (Initiative for Free Press), which trains journalists in Afghanistan, are not possible in Iran. The British and Danish, who are also active in Iran with cultural and educational programs, have the same approach. Thus, European regimes limit their efforts to cultural programs and internet seminars.

The media dialogues conducted by the German and Iranian Foreign Ministries have had little effect until now. In the course of this project, German and Iranian journalists meet with the aim to establish new contacts and discuss current topics. In practice, however, honest dialogues with the Iranian colleagues were not possible; these meetings rather served the regime as a platform for propagating their standpoint. As of yet, it is not clear whether further media dialogues are to take place.

On the EU level, no further projects besides the human rights dialogue conducted with Iran since December 2002 have taken place. The dialogue has taken place four times thus far and has been paused in light of the discussions over atomic energy. German political foundations such as the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is planning to open an office in Teheran, avoid public statements and keep secret any possible strategies they might pursue.

The US has lost any chance of influencing political or social development in Iran when it ceased diplomatic relations and froze Iranian capital. Thus, the establishment of NGOs and the promotion of human-rights and democracy projects by the US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor with a budget of US$ 36,448,000 – as, for instance, is done in China – is not possible in Iran. All initiatives and support of groups active in the country financed by American funds would not have a chance of existing in the country.

Only a few months ago, the State Department allocated US$ 3 million for “educational institutions, humanitarian groups, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals inside Iran to support the advancement of democracy and human rights.” The groups eligible for such funding have been called to present concrete program suggestions. The insignificance of the amount allotted and the fact that only few organizations and individuals located in Iran are able to apply openly leaves the effectiveness of this measure in doubt. Attempts by American senators to support the Iranian exile movements and especially the Los Angeles-based satellite channels have repeatedly failed in Congress.


Until now, all attempts by western nations for democratization, supporting freedom of the press, and promoting human rights in Iran have not been sufficient. Moreover, initiatives to improve the situation in Iran itself have not been successful. The Mullahs effectively prevent the reforms attempted by President Khatami since assuming office, in addition to efforts at liberalization by reform-oriented members of parliament. In the meantime, most critics of the regime have been ousted from parliament, reform-oriented newspapers have been closed, and critical journalists and student activists have been arrested. This has led to legitimate doubts as to whether the regime as such can be reformed.

Reciprocal dialogues with Iran, i.e. the EU’s human rights dialogues and the German government’s “Islam Dialogues”, shape the strategy of the German government and the EU. This concept is geared towards having the leading religious elite comprehend the situation and thus improve it. The hope that the religious elite will realize the error of its ways and change the patterns of behavior, which are rooted in religious tradition and, in many cases, serve to support their own maintenance of power, is rather slim. Nonetheless, this approach is useful, as it at least helps gain influence and access to the internal structures of the country.

Among the majority of the population – of which almost 70% are under 30 – the Mullahs’ system of rule meets rejection. Among other factors, this is indicated by the massive call for boycotting the presidential elections. Many younger people are politically frustrated and do not feel encouraged to rebel against the regime and fight for their freedom. An indicator for the fact that the system of power of the religious elite is not tolerated without resistance among the Iranian population is the systematic undermining of the law banning satellite dishes. By means of these, especially young people gain access to exile stations to satisfy their desire for entertainment. Many are not turned away by the mediocre quality of these shows and prefer them to the strictly controlled state-run channels.

The support of free satellite channels, however, can only be a single tool in a collection of measures. Its effects should not be underestimated. In the process of transforming a society, media can play a crucial catalyzing role. This has been proven by experiences with eastern European countries, where in situations of political upheaval, reports by free media formed an encouraging reflection of resistance.

The possibility of high-quality television programs to hit the nerve and Zeitgeist of the majority of the Iranian population are not exhausted so far. High-quality programs which meet journalistic interests are rather expensive in their production and should thus receive enduring and significant financial support from the EU and the American government. As to not risk their credibility, Iranians in exile should be able to develop such programs independently. Educative and informative exile journalism, which earnestly addresses the economic, social, and political grievances in Iran could help further awaken the population and allow the desire for change to be articulated more loudly. Courageous activities by dissidents and opponents of the regime should find a platform on exile television stations. The use of television plays a large role in this process. More intensive cooperation between those responsible for the program of the satellite stations and dissidents active in Iran could result in further politicization and encouragement of the many young people whose dissatisfaction with the given situation has generally led to resignation and a drawback from political processes.

The government’s harsh measures against projects endangering the regime should not prevent attempts to initiate undercover projects. The clandestine equipping of the active student scene and of critical journalists with financial means and small digital cameras with which to document their activities can unearth truths to a much greater degree and reach a broader audience than reports of NGOs up to now. The argument that this would endanger individuals to an even greater extent loses its power in consideration of the fact that they are endangering themselves by active resistance anyway. These government funds could also reach Iran through channels of private individuals and organizations.

These media policy measures should be supplemented by open declarations of solidarity by European politicians and the American government with the Iranian population. The EU’s human rights dialogues should condemn crimes committed by the Iranian regime against its own population in a more radical manner. Scheduling trade talks with Iran should depend on the extent to which the regime implements demands and concrete measures regarding human rights, such as the release of all political prisoners.

The open dialogue should not only be conducted with official representatives of the regime, but also increasingly with human rights organizations based in Iran itself, such as Shirin Ebadi’s Center for Human Rights Defenders.

After manipulated elections a new ultra-conservative president has come to power in Iran. It is to be expected that the human rights’ situation in Iran will further deteriorate, and that increased pressure will be imposed upon journalists. It is also likely that the Iranian economy will be negatively affected by a more confrontational nuclear policy as announced by the new government and by growing social restrictions. Especially in a situation like the current one, it seems important to provide the people in Iran with background information through an independent media. Moreover, European politicians should clearly and openly condemn human rights’ violations and thus convey a sense of international solidarity to dissidents in Iran.

[1]Refer to Shir Mohammad Rawan: “Medien im Iran,“ Internationales Handbuch Medien 2004/2005. Hans-Bredow-Institute for Media Research University Hamburg (Editor), p.903
[2]Antisemitic propaganda is not only proliferated over the news. The television series “Zahra’s Blue Eyes“ describes a story in which Israeli politicians steal the eyes of young Palestinian children for organ transplants. The series was broadcasted on the foreign television station Sahar TV, which has meanwhile been banned in France.
[3]Refer to Shir Mohammad Rawan: “Medien im Iran,“ Internationales Handbuch Medien 2004/2005. Hans-Bredow-Institute for Media Research University Hamburg (Editor), p.903
[4]Most Internet sites are still under construction. These rarely provide contact addresses and names of the creators.