In Iran, Journalism Is Still Alive but Hanging by a Thread

President Ebrahim Raisi is leaving no stone unturned to ensure his country dethrones North Korea as the most inhospitable place for reporters

In Iran, Journalism Is Still Alive but Hanging by a Thread
A theology student reads in a Tehran library in 2004. (Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

Iran is not yet the world’s worst place to be a journalist, but it is getting there. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), only North Korea, China and Vietnam currently trail Iran in a ranking of 180 countries for their measures of press freedom.

Ebrahim Raisi, the most hardline president of the Islamic Republic since its inception in 1979, is leaving no stone unturned to ensure North Korea is dethroned as the most inhospitable nation for reporters.

The numbers capture the direness of the situation. In October 2023, the Committee to Protect Journalists listed 95 journalists who have been arrested in Iran since the eruption of the Woman, Life, Freedom protests a year earlier. Some sources, such as the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), say six of those arrested remain behind bars, while others offer varying numbers. As reported by IFJ, nine journalists working with government-run newspapers were laid off because of their political views, and eight newspapers and online publications faced disciplinary action, including permanent and temporary bans. Ensaf News, a pro-reform news website, was instructed to change its executive director so that it could be allowed to continue operating.

In Iran, the space for independent journalism has become so constrained that reporters are no longer dealing with the question of how to report on issues of national security significance. The debate is also no longer about threading the needle on covering state red lines, including what honorifics to use to identify the supreme leader (previously, editorial meetings were haunted by a vexatious back-and-forth on how the leader should be named). A happy medium had to be found so that neither the middle-class reader feels offended by running into an obsequious description nor does the publication risk being closed for using inadequate bombast to adulate the country’s most powerful figure. That sticking point is now a relic of the past.

On Raisi’s watch, the bar for tolerance has been lowered so much that there’s now an aura of sanctity shielding everyone associated with the power circles. From a small northern town’s senior cleric to the flak for the capital’s city council, no government apparatchik is supposed to be accountable for anything, and challenging authority is synonymous with inexcusable profanity.

Following a lawsuit by Hassan Morseli, the Friday prayer leader of Sufian, a city in northwestern Iran with some 9,700 residents, a local reporter was sentenced to six months in prison in June 2022 for publishing statements on social media that criticized him. In a similarly odd experiment, the public relations manager of the state-run Bakhtar Regional Electricity Co. in the city of Arak lodged a complaint against the Bargh News website in July 2022 to secure a court injunction demanding the release of the personal information of a user who had left an anonymous comment under one of the articles criticizing his lack of work ethics.

In pursuit of a unification effort through which the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is seeking to gather as much personal information about working journalists as possible, a national system of reporters has been set up that media practitioners are asked to register with. The ministry officials say nearly 8,500 reporters have provided their details, and in return, they will be issued press ID cards that grant them official status. People in charge of the project say this is an initiative aimed at protecting journalists. Industry professionals, however, insist that as with any other proposal marketed as “national,” such as the creation of a national internet that was actually a nationwide internet ban, this will be another restrictive measure aimed at usurping a right.

There was a time when journalists cited a constitution that, despite its flaws, paid at least lip service to the idea of press freedom, as the government’s commitment to protect them and their wobbly business. That document now plays second fiddle to the whims of zealots in charge of government agencies who share a hysteria that journalists are the operatives of foreign states, always harboring some pernicious motives, even when covering such stories as child abuse in a foster care center.

Yet, what is astounding is that in a stultifying climate of fear, and as the state jockeys for stamping out every hint of heterogeneity in the press corps, a chorus of young, educated and smart reporters has kept the flames of ethical journalism alive, defying the myth that Iran’s news industry has gone extinct. This glimmer of hope is offered by the tiny sliver of nonpartisan journalists venturing to expose corruption, malfeasance and social ills through the handful of progressive newspapers and online publications that haven’t yet been suffocated.

Their work may not be highly visible, as they are handicapped by the limited circulation of the newspapers they work for, the systematic exclusion of their coverage from the public discourse and the broader mistrust of the people not interested in domestic newspapers. But some of the places recruiting these promising reporters are indeed doing good, venerable journalism. Shargh Daily is one of them, rolling the stone up the hill throughout the years. PBS once referred to it as “a lightning rod for censorship” that employs more female journalists than any other national publication. In a 2005 piece for The New York Times, cultural critic Virginia Heffernan described Shargh as “one of the few private newspapers that have not been put out of business” by the ruthless judiciary, one that, despite not being revolutionary in its indictment of the autocracy, is still “exciting to read.”

That the media ecosystem is in dire straits remains a fact. Foreign correspondents are missing in the scene churning out firsthand reports from a tense social environment, and the state monopoly over multimedia broadcasting blocks all conceivable pathways to independent oversight of the Islamic Republic’s polity and governance. Media being entitled to legal and constitutional protection or the government stepping aside to let reporters do their job are simply illusory scenarios. Instead, the ruling clergy and the mandarins serving them avail themselves of grandstanding and embellishment to sell a lamentable state of affairs as rosy.

In autocracies, extreme analogies and hyperboles are often invoked by officials to neutralize the impact of bad press their governments receive. In October, Iran’s Minister of Science Mohammad Ali Zolfigol told a gathering of students at the elite Sharif University of Technology that Iran has got some of the “most free universities in the world.” He wasn’t jeered by the audience, but the darkness of his intrepid, unintended humor can hardly be overstated. Over time, these pronouncements cause less outrage. People are getting used to their futility and ignoring them. Government sympathizers confidently reference them as evidence of the Islamic Republic having provided journalists with unbounded safety and protection.

In 2019, then-First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said, “Iran is the freest country in the Middle East, and this has been proven to the world.” Last August, Raisi claimed that “one of the honors of the Islamic government is the freedom of press and freedom of expression. We have guaranteed the freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and this is inspired by the blood of our martyrs.” In reaction to the mounting criticism of the government crackdown on the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising last year, Esmaeil Kowsari, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander and former member of Parliament, said that “the level of freedom of expression in our country is such that it doesn’t even exist in European countries or America.”

The realities of journalism in Iran don’t stack up against the willful overstatements of functionaries who understand the role of media professionals as clerical workers hired to stay on top of some banal bureaucracy and fill out timesheets of their working hours. The relationship between government and reporters is often defined in transactional terms, one in which the journalists who give the most flattering coverage to the establishment subdivisions are rewarded and the disobedient ones fall from grace and are denied incentives.

A reporter in the city of Rasht who talked to me on condition of anonymity said that under former President Hassani Rouhani, the provincial Department of Culture and Islamic Guidance would fax advisories to the magazine headquarters, instructing the chief editor what themes to prioritize in the reportage. My source recalled the magazine’s receiving guidelines on the imperative to publish essays about family, childbearing and social media. These weren’t binding communiques and were worded in “cordial” terms, but complying with or defying them was an indication of whether a publication was being pliant or if it had to be put on a gray list for punitive action or divestment.

In Iran’s state capitalist economic model, where the central government wields its hegemony over public wealth and decides how much funding each enterprise, including in the private sector, is entitled to receive, even the nominally independent press is at the mercy of the executive branch. To be eligible for printing paper subsidies, tax exemptions, insurance benefits, early retirement and the cash handouts given to reporters, media and their staff should curry favor with the authorities. It is no surprise, then, that the smaller newsrooms settle on toeing the state line and kowtow to the directives sent to them about what to publish or censor.

The mechanisms have changed, according to this local reporter, and the shady letters aren’t coming in as regularly. The government is being much more straightforward about its intentions, and the Department of Culture, despite being a heavily doctrinaire body, is pretty much sidelined. Now, the IRGC is informally calling the shots, and it is through an institution founded in 2011 that media coverage, especially on the local level, is being engineered.

Called the Media Basij Organization, the paramilitary consortium has branches in each of the 31 provinces, and in every region, it is headed by a commander who is either a colonel or second brigadier general. They host periodic conferences and festivals on themes such as the cause of Palestine, compulsory hijab, chastity, gender segregation, nuclear self-sufficiency, Shiite mourning rites and the legacy of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Delegations of local reporters are sponsored to take part in these events and write stories about them. The most “powerful” pieces are handpicked for monetary awards that sometimes can be quite generous.

The infusion of the IRGC agenda into the media narratives is enabled by, among others, the collusion of a new generation of more polished hardliners who identify as “media activists.” These young ideologues often boast solid ties with the guards, have little to no experience in reporting and writing, and don’t even qualify as classic activists. The designation “media activist” is a euphemism that rationalizes their meddling in the jurisdiction of journalists, gives them carte blanche to strong-arm media executives into overturning editorial decisions and equips them with a bully pulpit to use for preaching purposes.

One example is a young Basij militant named Seyed Pouyan Hosseinpour, who has gained popularity among the ultraconservatives for his incendiary posts on X, formerly Twitter. He has recently been appointed to a university teaching position and presents himself as a doctorate holder, even though speculations abound on him having faked the degree. Without any journalistic output, he appears on state TV to comment on media matters, runs workshops on the “war of narratives” and gives speeches across the country on “media and social activism,” among other themes. He has publicly admitted to being part of the plainclothes forces that cracked down on the protesters in 2022, and Rouhani and former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are his betes noires. Still, he continues to be marketed as a “media activist” who leverages his online influence to spread malice against countries who have adversarial relations with the Islamic Republic and to glorify violence against protesters. In some X posts, he called the uprising in 2022 the “revolution of the stupids.”

When it comes to perpetuating coercion, closures of newspapers and websites aren’t as ubiquitous as was the case under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although the autocracy doesn’t care about public or international pressure, it still recognizes that shuttering every publication and throwing more people into unemployment would come at a price, so it is diversifying its methods of strangulation away from overnight bans of outlets. In the absence of independent news conglomerates and publishing groups, appropriating the existing structures seems to be a relatively low-cost strategy.

Hamshahri, the massive media company run by the municipality of Tehran, was founded in 2008 and currently oversees seven newspapers, magazines and online portals. At its peak, the group comprised 18 subsidiaries and was run by some of the country’s most accomplished journalists, affording it the reputation of a trustworthy source of information. Today, co-opted by the administration of the ultraconservative mayor, Alireza Zakani, Hamshahri touts the production of journalistic output “within the frameworks of the Islamic Revolution’s goals and values” and the training of “media workforce loyal to the sacred system of the Islamic Republic” as its mission.

A newspaper that is the main spinoff of the syndicate had a circulation of 400,000 copies per day through 2017. It currently prints a total of 50,000 copies and at best sells no more than half of it, according to Meisam Mozafar, a member of Tehran City Council tasked with an inquiry into the near-insolvent entity. Other than its despondent ratings, the newspaper’s content, supplied by a coterie of hidebound columnists, testifies to its dystopian state. It is not just that its pro-regime propaganda is blundering. The conspiracy theories it peddles and its recourse to misinformation and spurious data to corroborate its reporting have depleted its standing irreversibly. At the height of the nationwide protests sparked by the killing of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, the newspaper ran stories and infographics suggesting that the guards beating people on the streets and breaking into private properties were not members of the armed forces or law enforcement but “subversive” elements opposed to the Islamic Republic disguised as riot police. It never responded to public calls to share evidence of those questionable allegations.

Another major name of Iran’s news industry that has suffered a blow as a result of government micromanagement is the Iranian Students News Agency. It was founded in 1999 by the state-run Academic Center for Education, Culture and Research to serve as the voice of Iran’s academic and university community. It was set in motion as a wire service staffed by pro-reform young journalists and recent graduates who subscribed to the worldview of former President Mohammad Khatami. It successfully gained the trust of its readership and came to be perceived as a visionary news website maintaining an acceptable degree of editorial independence. Starting during Ahmadinejad’s tenure, layoffs slowly dented its journalistic candor, and the administration of Raisi has demoted it to the status of yet another mouthpiece for totalitarian newspeak.

The website is now replete with whataboutism and inaccurate information on world affairs, smears against an ailing reform movement and sentimental sweet talk about the extremists representing the Raisi administration, including a round-the-clock eulogy of the president himself.

Yet against a bleak big picture leaving little room for optimism about the future of Iran’s media industry bogged down by a rigid theocracy, indications of an animated ensemble of investigative reporters seeking to push the boundaries while the odds of success are stacked against them cannot be ignored. Even if it’s only a handful of them, progressive newspapers and news websites are running the gauntlet of a stern security apparatus, lifting the veil on stories of wrongdoing perpetrated or abetted by the system.

Much of what constitutes the global media coverage of Iranian affairs trickles down from local news outlets and the journalists who are braving day-to-day hardships to produce unconventional stories that do not mimic the ruling elite’s talking points. International broadcasters and print publications are now heavily reliant on intelligence curated by Western governments, anonymous sources inside Iran and speculation to present a picture of the country grounded in reality. Yet they continue to cite the few remaining pro-reform newspapers and agencies as critical conduits of revelation.

“It is true that government pressure and censorship and the exodus of many talented journalists have weakened Iran’s domestic journalism, but I don’t characterize the scene as hopeless,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran expert and dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Education at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

“There are still many effective journalists who reveal cases of corruption and managerial ineptitude and others who write thoughtful commentary on what is happening in Iran,” he told New Lines. “Granted, to circumvent the state censorship apparatus they often must choose their words carefully and engage in political, theological acrobatics to convey their message, but the sophisticated reader can read between the lines what they are trying to communicate.”

Shargh Daily, founded in August 2003, is one of the last vestiges of a collective of promising liberal newspapers established during the reform era, seeking to instill hope in an otherwise gloomy public sphere devoid of discordant voices. Since it started operating, Shargh has been temporarily banned on four occasions. The most recent time, in 2012, it was closed down for publishing a cartoon the authorities judged to be disparaging of the combatants of the Iran-Iraq War, known domestically as the “holy defense.”

From its current coverage, it can be surmised that pressure on what used to be one of the most outspoken domestic opposition media has piled up to the extent that its leadership has had to cave in to making compromises. The sloganeering of the hardline clerics bragging about the successive triumphs of the Islamic Republic and the imminent collapse of the West can now often be seen featured on Shargh’s front page, evidently a quid pro quo for less interference in stifling its journos.

But Shargh maintains its status as a bulwark of critical, forward-looking journalism, although a debilitated one, which enables the marginalized intellectual stream to be entitled to a platform and keeps the Damocles’ sword of accountability hanging above the government’s head. Some of the notable stories it has featured lately include an investigation into a ghettoized neighborhood in the city of Mashhad inhabited by a crowd of people with leprosy; scrutiny of the mass deaths of cross-border laborers targeted by the armed forces; exposition of the poisoning of schoolgirls after the Woman, Life, Freedom uprisings and a damning report on the prevalence of honor killings.

Over the past few years, some of the journalists working with Shargh have landed positions in international newsrooms and others have risen to fame globally. Perhaps the most prominent is Niloufar Hamedi, now serving a seven-year sentence as a result of her courageous reporting on the killing of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police in September 2022. While she has been in detention, international organizations have dedicated their highest honors to her, including the 2023 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, which she shared with her imprisoned colleague Elaheh Mohammadi. She is also the recipient of Harvard University’s Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism.

In October, the Ministry of Intelligence and the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hypothesized in a long-winded statement of 7,700 words that reporting by Hamedi and Mohammadi had sparked the outburst of the nationwide protests, described by the government as “riots.” Accusations of cooperation with hostile governments and receiving training from CIA and other intelligence agencies were offhandedly directed at the two women journalists, and it appeared that the clerical establishment had found vulnerable scapegoats to punish for the popular uprising against its own misconduct.

Ham-Mihan is another pro-reform newspaper whose survival and ongoing publication reminds one of the inimitable days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when dozens of outspoken newspapers were cranking out brave, unapologetically candid journalism. Launched in 2000, Ham-Mihan has also been banned on multiple occasions, and its current iteration has been in print since 2022. The masthead includes some of the leading names of Iran’s journalism who haven’t left the country and have not been caught in the crosshairs of arbitrary persecution by the authorities.

Compared with Shargh’s, Ham-Mihan’s writing style is much more trenchant, and the newsroom lineup of daring reporters guarantees that its output is markedly more scathing in challenging the status quo. Some of its investigative stories have garnered national attention and drawn fierce backlash from the Raisi administration.

In a September 2023 report that has since garnered intense attention, the newspaper concluded that the killing of Mahsa Amini by the morality police and the violent crackdown on the ensuing protests have fostered anxiety and other mental health conditions among Iranians. The reporters interviewed several pharmacy owners in different cities who suggested, based on their empirical observations, that out of almost every five patients visiting to collect prescriptions over a year-long period, at least one has been receiving psychiatric medication.

The interviews and anecdotes shared in the report, confirming a simmering mental health crisis exacerbated by the state’s repression, fly in the face of the leadership’s persistent message that psychological disorders are a taboo issue that should not be examined in the media. Officials consider any reference to the prevalence of mental illnesses a disapproving shorthand for their own failure in creating a safe and happy society. When newspapers openly broach this dilemma, the government feels offended because the connotation would be that it is the Islamic Republic’s governance that has precipitated so much despair and psychological strain, so the debate should be swept under the rug.

An in-depth report by Ham-Mihan on Nov. 13, 2023, contextualizing Iran’s brain drain crisis, following a streak of similar revelatory reports it published about the mass migration of professionals, students and healthcare workers, has provided rather shocking figures about what the Islamic Republic has long dismissed as a fairy tale. Reporter Shokoofeh Habibzadeh’s smart use of numbers undergirds a self-explanatory rebuttal of whatever is said in the official discourse about Iranians leaving the country en masse being inconsequential or a hype by the “enemies.”

Habibzadeh reported that nearly 44% of Iranian students and graduates expressed an interest in leaving the country and that, in 2021, a total of 10,056 properties were purchased in Turkey by Iranians who built upon the neighboring country’s citizenship-by-real-estate investment scheme. This data-heavy report and other examples of solid narrative journalism by Ham-Mihan signify that as opposed to regime-sponsored media — where unscripted rants, sentimental verbiage and fickle allegations make up the substance of the daily output — the independent newspaper enshrines the tradition of investigative journalism.

The reform movement in Iran is relentlessly disparaged by the diasporic opposition as being spineless, one that has colluded with the authoritarian system to extend its lifespan, a camp that doesn’t know how to trigger concrete action for change. But the exiled opposition itself cannot itemize a tangible contribution it has made to fundamental change within Iran’s borders. Still, it overlooks that the few nonconformist media outlets that make it possible for Iran to be seen in an alternative light are the product of the moderation and tolerance that pro-reform administrations scrambled to introduce at times when the dominant political mood was characterized by fanaticism and chauvinism.

Boroujerdi once said that “the expatriate media has now become the ‘culture of reference’ for most Iranians even inside Iran” and that a large constituency sees state media as servile mouthpieces for the ruling tycoons undeserving of trust. But no democratic prerogative possessed by the expat media replaces the access the journalists inside the country have to officials, stakeholders, sources, locations and ordinary citizens. Above all, they are physically there, which means their direct vantage point is unmatched even by the professionalism and sophistication of international correspondents and Persian-language reporters who cannot travel to Iran and lack any on-the-ground connections.

It is true that Iran’s journalism universe is impaired and crippled. But it doesn’t mean that the vast potentials of Iranian journalists have been neutered or that they are not generating robust, respectable work. After any marginal opening in the political space, they swoop in to seize the opportunity and showcase their qualities. Of course, a longstanding deficiency in journalism education, the absence of professional training opportunities facilitated by international experts, and the structural flaws of how the dominant business models work have markedly slowed down the evolution of the media practice.

Still, it would be not only unfair but reckless to shrug off the efforts of a body of creative, curious and knowledgeable journalists whose sacrifices to communicate the truth are exemplified by the fact that at least 62 reporters remained behind bars in Iran as of Dec. 1, earning the Islamic Republic notoriety as the world’s worst jailer of journalists. Iran’s journalism is indisposed, but it’s alive.

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