A Blog Written By Roozbeh Mirebrahimi
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear faculty and students:
I am delighted to have this opportunity to be with you tonight. I speak as an Iranian journalist during the reformist period.
The profession of journalism has played a major role in the transformation of the Iranian society and the development of a civil society there. It has also paid dearly for its activities.
Newspapers have been shut down; journalists have repeatedly been arrested, persecuted, even faced death.
Nevertheless, journalists continue to take advantage of any slight opening to inform the people and to reach the public.
One could speak and write volumes about the struggle that journalists face in Iran, but here I will briefly try to portray a glimpse of what horrendous difficulties a journalist encounters.
Publication of newspapers in Iran has a long and tumultuous history. The single most important mission of journalism is informing the general public. The main function, therefore, is to aid the progress of social and cultural change. This function, in part, involves speaking truth to power. Small wonder then if the press is considered the fourth pillar of democracy.
From the reformist period to the present, in the name of the law, the regime has committed illegal acts against the press. The triumph of the reformist government of Sayyed Mohammad Khatami in 1997 witnessed the founding of new publications. It marked the beginning of the flourishing of a free press.
But the power elite sensed that a well-informed citizenry was a real threat to its hold on power. It did its best to suppress it. During this period, the press was constrained and further limited through overt and covert mechanisms.
In its overt form, one single speech and the labeling of the press as the “base of the enemy” led to the closing down of tens of publications in less than a week. Censorship became more and more apparent to the public. During this same period, thousands of journalists were forced out of work while some others were locked up.
Notably, prior to this, the Fifth Legislative Session, which was dominated by reactionary deputies, had enacted laws which limited freedom of the press in clear contravention of the Constitution.
Even the Sixth legislative session, which was dominated by reformist representatives, failed to overturn the law against the freedom of the press. The direct intervention of the Supreme Leader added this oppressive law to other laws considered sacred.
The amended law in the Fifth Legislative Session became a means to impose censorship.
The other implication of press suppression and imposed censorship was even more distressing. Once the regime closed down newspapers and incarcerated journalists, it came up with novel ideas to eradicate the flourishing awareness of the public.
The power elite began to create distance between the people and the press. Resentful of the hard-won trust between the press and its interlocutors, the regime did its utmost to weaken this bond.
The question is how this was accomplished?
Here are the ways through which press censorship is enacted in Iran today:
A. Censorship Imposed by the Council of Guardians
The powerful and conservative Council of Guardians started on the path of censorship during the middle of President Khatami’s first term and reached its peak subsequently. The primary function of the Council under the Constitution is to ensure that acts of legislation are not incompatible with Islamic tenets and the articles of the Constitution, but in effect the Council became a major instrument of press suppression.
Regularly, and in some cases on a weekly basis, the Council of Guardians approved new legislations which were communicated furtively to the press. If these amendments were to be collected in a volume, it would make masterpiece of satire.
Unfortunately, this boundless power was bestowed upon the Council of Guardians by the Fifth Legislative Session.
B. Censorship through the Office of the Prosecutor General
Instead of protecting the interests of the public against illegal encroachments, the Prosecutor-General in effect has become Prosecutor-Particular, in the sense that instead of protecting the public, it patently sides with the power establishment. Instead of siding with the people and protecting the press which serve as the watchdog of the people, the Prosecutor-General has regularly sided with the power elite and interpreted the law subjectively. This institution, with the help of the Revolutionary Guard, security agencies and the state-run television, has caused the arrest and imprisonment of many journalists. It is necessary to mention that the hard-line government of Ahmadinejad has outdone the judiciary in its anti-press activities.
C. Censorship Through Editorial Boards
During these years, the editorial boards of newspapers and journals were transformed into major agents of censorship. Clearly, this was in response to new developments as well as a strategy. The constant threat of indictment by the Persecutor-General was similar to taking the editors hostage. In addition, the policy of “surviving at whatever price” immersed the press in self-censorship. Obviously, there were those editors who set public interest above private gains and emerged triumphant.
D. Self-Censoring Journalists
Not a few journalists have succumbed to the temptation of self-censorship out of fear of arrest and imprisonment on the one hand and job insecurity on the other. Nevertheless, there are those journalists who continue against all odds to respond to the people’s demand for a free press. The majority of the journalists who are the product of the short interlude of the freedom of the press are doing their best to resist the regime desire to silence them. That is why it can be claimed that choosing journalism as a profession in Iran is not like walking in a mine field. It is like stepping on a mine.
In light of my brief personal account as an Iranian journalist, I have to emphasize that many journalists in Iran continue to struggle against press suppression. The rise of a new generation of journalists promises to increase journalists’ self-awareness and contribute to the growing public knowledge about freedom in all its manifestations, including that of freedom of the press.
I hope that every politically aware Iranian will find his or her path to freedom in a constructive manner.
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S.A.
April 11, 2007