By Ariane Gottlieb, Research Associate
MYTH: The Iranian government exercises strict control over the press and tightly censors the Internet and media, making communication with the outside world virtually nonexistent. This censorship makes it impossible for Iranians to publicly criticize the government or to obtain international news and perspectives on current events.
FACT: In reality, this is only a partial understanding of access to information in Iran. While harsh policies and tactics used against journalists in the country cannot not be understated, Iranians have found many ways to circumvent state censorship, such as bypassing the Internet firewall or accessing international channels via illegal satellite dishes. A full understanding of media and censorship in Iran requires distinguishing government laws from the practices of average Iranians.
When it comes to freedom of the media and Internet, it is undeniable that the Iranian government has implemented many restrictive laws and used force and intimidation to oppose political or cultural dissent. Freedom House, an American NGO dedicated to political freedom and human rights, labelled Iran’s press-freedom status as “not free,” giving it a score of 90 out of 100 (with 100 being the least free). This score reflects strict government censorship in Iran, making it difficult and dangerous for citizens or news organizations to criticize the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or other taboo topics such as the nuclear deal.
The government’s power to restrict freedom of the press is rooted in the country’s Constitution; Article 24 calls for freedom of the press, except in cases that are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Iran or the rights of the public.” This principle is echoed in other laws, such as the 1986 Press Law, which states that the news media should enjoy freedom of speech, except in cases that violate the civil code or Islamic principles. The government has made use of this power, and the result for journalism has been chilling. In March of 2010, shortly after the contested presidential election of 2009, 52 journalists were imprisoned. That number remained largely unchanged for the next few years, with Iran being named the fifth largest jailer of journalists and citizen journalists in the world in late 2013. While the number of journalists jailed has decreased in recent years, the experience for imprisoned journalists – many of whom are held in Evin Prison – remains devastating. They can be subjected to whippings, solitary confinement, or denied medical care or family visits. The result has been a reduction in news coverage and self-censorship. However, despite the challenges and risks of conducting news coverage in Iran, many centrist and reformist news outlets still operate amidst threats of shut-down or arrest, and the country has between 60,000 and 110,000 blogs, one of the largest numbers in the Middle East.
President Hassan Rouhani, who recently won his bid for reelection, has called for greater freedom of information, saying “the freedom and rights of people have been ignored but those of rulers have been emphasized.” He has also suggested that free expression and media will incentivize young people to get their news from state TV, rather than illegally turning to foreign services. Yet, despite promises to loosen restrictions, little legal reform has been enacted; many social media sites are banned, foreign services are blocked, and journalists continue to be imprisoned. Still, there are signs of improvement. Some journalists say that some of the pressure has abated since the difficult period following the 2009 Green Movement. Topics that were formerly avoided, such as political, cultural, and social norms, have made their way into the public sphere. By 2013, news publications were again openly covering American officials, sanctions, and referencing detained opposition leaders. As one anonymous, reformist editor-in-chief said, “there is pressure and there is self-censorship. However, the atmosphere has notably changed.”
Censors, Firewalls, and Circumvention:
Given the official restrictions and limited media access in Iran, many Iranians receive their information via international media services, obtained through illegal satellite dishes. These dishes are not looked upon fondly by the state. General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the Commander of the Basij military has said, “the truth is that most satellite channels...deviate the society’s morality and culture,” even alleging that satellite dishes actually increase divorces, addiction, and societal insecurity. Given the official government stance against the dishes, authorities will periodically conduct raids, charge fines up to $2,800, and publicly destroy them. They also occasionally try to block signals from specific European satellites. In 2009, for example, French broadcasting companies were forced to move BBC Persian Television from a satellite, “Hot Bird 6,” to another signal to circumvent a sudden ban.
Yet, despite the official hard-line stance of the government against them, the use of satellite dishes in Iran is widespread, with an estimated 70% of Iranians using them to access news, entertainment, movies or television programs. In fact, the United States, Dubai, and European countries broadcast Persian language stations in the hopes of reaching the Iranian population. The content Iranians are able to access via satellite dishes expose them to international perspectives or stories that are not adequately covered by domestic stations. This was particularly evident during the 2009 Green Revolution. During this movement, the government tightly censored coverage, but Iranians were able to use satellite dishes to view photographs and videos, domestic and foreign developments, as well as uncensored opinions being broadcast on international news outlets.
An analogous work-around for access to censored media also exists on the Internet. The majority of Internet traffic in Iran travels through a central facility where government filters can censor out banned content (e.g., social media, pornographic sites and some websites for art and news). However, Iranians are able to bypass these filters using proxy servers or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Using this technology, a majority of the country has access to social media, with an estimated 60% using messaging services like WeChat and Viber and 58% using Facebook regularly, despite its official banned status. In fact, the use of social media is so commonplace that many politicians have taken to using banned websites themselves to reach their citizens. Leading up to the 2017 election, Rouhani used his Twitter account to circumvent state censors, releasing clips of his campaign video that had been blocked on state TV. All six presidential candidates used Twitter in 2017 and the Supreme Leader himself has both a Twitter and an Instagram account.
Access to social media has allowed Iranians to communicate with the outside world, an activity that became so integral to the Green Revolution that it was dubbed a “Twitter Revolution.” Social media has also given Iranians the opportunity for people-to-people connections with whom they would otherwise have little interaction. One recent heartwarming example was the Facebook movement Israel Loves Iran where Iranians and Israelis photographed and shared pictures of themselves holding up posters with messages of support to people in the other country.
Though the government has implemented stringent and severe measures to limit freedom of speech and access to information, many Iranians have found ways to circumvent these blocks. The highly educated population in Iran has embraced illegal means of accessing foreign news services and social media as part of their everyday lives. According to the Iran Primer, a website from the United States Institute of Peace, “most [of Iranian youth] are exposed to global media, ideas, and culture through satellite television and the Internet.” When assessing freedom of information in Iran, the global community tends to draw conclusions based on laws and government practice (correctly assessing the serious and problematic state for journalists), but often neglects to see how average Iranians take it upon themselves to access information, share their ideas, and reach out to each other and the rest of the world.