By Zafar Iqbal
Iran is amongst those unfortunate countries of the Middle East where authoritarian regimes frequently use unyielding measures to gag the press in order to prevent free flow of information. Media watchdog Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index puts Iran at number 152 out of 173 countries. The Freedom House 2009 Report ranked Iran 181 out of 195 countries for media openness. Recently, Iranian authorities have shut down the office of the Association of Iranian Journalists (AoIJ) and arrested three more journalists, raising the number of imprisoned journalists to 37 which is the largest in the world. In this backdrop, admittedly it is accurate to proclaim Iran as ‘world’s leading jailer of journalists’ which have also been termed as “prisoners of conscience.” by the Amnesty International.
Iranian authorities accuse media for “triggering” the instability in the country. The Iranian government insists that it has only detained those who have played a role in influencing the recent political turmoil after presidential elections. In a public address Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini blamed foreign media, calling it “evil” for attempting to divide the people of Iran, hence, the foreign news media outlets were barred from covering events from streets and several foreign journalists were forced to leave the country.
On the other hand, media refute the charges leveled by the government and maintain that Iranian authorities are seeking to hide the truth through mounting despotism against independent media. During the first term of President Mahmoud Ahmadi Najad liberal media came under increased censorship while state controlled or pro government media outlets were sponsored through many concessions and subsidies. Since 2005 government has cut subsidies of reformist and liberal publications by upwards of 60 percent which caused job loss for more than 1,800 journalists and photographers during the last four years because of the closures and suspensions.
Constitutionally, Iranian government has right to control all electronic media through its organ- Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) which has authority to manipulate all internal and external broadcasting. State run media is widely criticized for blackouts of political opponents; however, because of government’s sanctions on local press, now foreign media is getting enormous popularity in Iranian people. Many western media broadcasters hugely increased their coverage in recent years, particularly after contested Iranian election. Based in Prague and Washington, Radio Farda’s Persian transmission has been estimated by US State department as ‘the highest weekly reach rate of any international radio station in the Iran’. Similarly, BBC Persian -language television has also attracted huge viewership in Iran and abroad.
The stringent press censorship in Iran has cultivated growing eminence of the alternative media to shape and give voice to anti- government public sentiments. The internet has emerged as a successful and powerful contrivance for Iranian political activists, journalists and bloggers to disseminate their news and views across the globe. During and after the 2009 election, social networking sites such as facebook, youtube and twitter became extremely admired and vital channels of information inside and outside the Iran when government imposed restrictions on conventional press. The Persian bloggers have emerged as one of the largest and most active in the world. Open Net Initiative which monitors the Internet censorship and surveillance, estimates the number of active Persian blogs as about 60,000 which indicates tremendous participation of Iranian citizens in positive application of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs).
Surely, the proliferation and popularity of alternative media in Iran is described highly dependent upon increasing use of the internet. Over the past eight years, the number of Internet users in Iran has grown at an average annual rate of approximately 48 percent, increasing from under one million Internet users in 20005 to around 23 million in 2008 which also infuriated the government and it also imposed authoritarian procedures to curtail louder voice of internet media. As a result, now Iran becomes the only country in the world to have instituted an explicit cap on Internet access speed for households that restricts the ability of Internet users to download multimedia content which, observer say, is more blunt and open as compared to the tightly controlled radio and television media in Iran.
In April 2009, Iran introduced some crucial amendments to the Press Law which bound Web sites to obtain a license prior to publication. While, Bloggers and online media were also included to be subject to the regulatory authority of the Press Supervisory Board under the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance (MICG), which has the power to revoke licenses, ban publications, and refer complaints to a special Press Court. Applying the powers of this law, the Web sites of numerous international free speech organizations and news sources have been blocked. Last year, the Iranian government blocked five million websites for having allegedly pornographic content and disseminating impendent news information to the public. According to Reporters without Borders, the authorities arrested or questioned 17 bloggers during 2008, seven more than in 2007.
All previous and fresh malicious measures initiated against the press in Iran demonstrate that authorities are attempting to quash freedom of speech in order to suppress the political dissidents and critics which are the indispensable constituents of a consolidated democracy. Iranian government can not deny the glittering fact that the truth could not be hidden through suppression and suffocation of independent media. In spite of unrelenting restrictions on Iranian press, the manifestation of truth continues.