Iran's Press: The Blindfolded Racehorse - The Khomeinist Ideology, The Global Hezbollah Movement, Classical Anti-Americanism, Anti-Arab And Anti-Israeli Shibboleths, And Pipedreams
18 February 2015
By Amir Taheri
Anyone with an interest in newspapers is bound to be impressed when strolling
in one of Tehran's boulevards—they are dotted with kiosks selling a range of
Tehran may be one of the last major capitals where newsstands remain a part
of the urban landscape. Depending on which paper is banned on a given day, at
least 15 dailies are on sale at Tehran's newsstands, an appreciable number by
any standards. (Tehran boasted more than 20 dailies in the 1950s but only
eight in the last years of the Shah.)
However, the large number of dailies on sale in Tehran does not equal many
genuine reading options. For the press in the Islamic Republic is owned and
tightly controlled by rival factions within an establishment based on an
alliance of military-security services and a section of the Shi'ite clergy in
partnership with big business.
The first feature of the Iranian press is that while publication permits are
issued in the name of individual owners, they can almost always be traced
back either to government departments, including the Islamic Revolutionary
Guard, or to political blocs supporting one of the ''big players.'' For
example, the ''Supreme Guide'' Ali Khamenei is the permit holder for the
daily Islamic Republic, while he also appoints the Editor-in-Chief of the
daily Kayhan. His erstwhile ally and current rival Hashemi Rafsanjani
finances a number of dailies, often through business partners linked to his
family. The president of the day also controls a number of newspapers
published by the government.
The government spends an average of 150 million US dollars each year
subsidizing the press, through paid reportages, advertising, lower tariffs on
newsprint, and direct handouts. Needless to say, the faction that controls
the presidency at any given time is more generous with its own segment of the
press than that controlled by rival factions. Nevertheless, government
subsidies also act as a disincentive for the press to develop its own
economic base through larger circulation and more advertising revenue. With
total daily circulation of the press hovering around a million, private
sector advertisers prefer spending their money at television channels. Before
the revolution, Kayhan‘s circulation reached the one million mark, something
no newspaper in the Islamic Republic has so far come close to.
The Iranian press has a fairly large number of well-trained reporters who,
given a chance, could operate at international standards. Many are young men,
and increasingly also women, who have graduated from the Institute of Mass
Media Studies set up by Kayhan in the 1960s in Tehran. They know the
techniques of the trade as well as any reporter in free societies but are
unable to produce the kind of work they would like because of ''fear and
censorship.'' That problem is reflected in a short story by Vali Khalili, a
crime reporter for a Tehran daily, about a young journalist's investigation
of a mysterious disappearance. On several occasions the reporter thinks of
''dropping the whole thing'' because he knows that if he set a foot outside
''the red lines'' he could simply be fired or killed or, worse, forced into
exile. Since the mullahs seized power in 1979, over 100 journalists have been
executed or murdered, and many others thrown into prison. Hundreds have fled
into exile. Right now dozens of journalists are in prison while many are
banned from working in the media. They are called ''Mamnu Al-Qalam''
Like anyone who is genuinely smitten by journalism, Khalili's hero is ready
to jettison his grumbling girlfriend, ignore his dying mother, snub his
snooty boss and risk his life by encountering dangerous characters only to
complete his investigation.
He wonders how ''to deal with this maddening censorship'' not to mention
self-censorship. His friends advise him to give up. But then he meets
Muhammad Boluri, a famous crime reporter of the pre-revolutionary era, who
urges him never to abandon ''a good story.'' Khalili's hero recalls that
scores of colleagues have fled abroad to work in Persian-language radio and
TV channels set up by Britain, the US, France, Germany and Arab countries to
fight the Islamic Republic. He also knows that several journalists were
killed and their bodies dumped on the roadside during the tenures of
presidents Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami.
The prospect of exile breaks his heart. ''I need to be in the belly of the
beast,'' he writes. ''I need to be in Tehran, to smell it, to taste it, feel
it, know its aches and pains and the sadness of its people.'' A newspaper
without a city is the shadow of the real thing and a reporter without a
newspaper is no more than ghost.
One way to avoid risks is to steer clear of ''hot issues'', especially
political ones. This is perhaps why Tehran has so many dailies dealing with
economic and business issues and sport. Iranian journalists produce good copy
on a range of economic subjects and sports. Their work is of high standard
when dealing with such issues as environmental disasters. The Iranian press
also has competent film and theater critics and writers on literary and
Censorship works in different ways. One way is to deny the press information
on which to construct a news story. Because the state and para-state organs
control most aspects of Iranian life they are also key sources of
information. If they decide to keep something outside public discussion they
often succeed. For example, it is interesting that the nuclear issue has
never been discussed in a serious way, not even in the Islamic Majlis, the
ersatz parliament. The issue is presented as the number one concern of
Iranian strategy, but no Iranian journalist is allowed to get a handle on it.
Iran is also a major oil exporter. And yet, today not a single Iranian
journalist operates as an authoritative oil correspondent as was the case
with reporters such as Ali-Akbar Khairkhah and Ali Bastani in
pre-revolutionary times. Almost a third of the national budget goes to
military and security expenditure. And, yet, once again Iranian press is not
allowed to train and deploy reporters dealing with such issues.
Even when information is given, it is often impossible to double-check
because officials have learned to keep their mouths shut or, where possible,
bribe less scrupulous reporters to relay only the authorized versions.
Then there is the problem of daily censorship when someone from the Ministry
of Islamic Guidance and Culture telephones editors to tell them what ''red
lines'' to avoid that day.
Because really important issues cannot be treated in a serious manner, Iran
remains massively under-covered, so to speak. The pity of it is that Iran has
enough talented journalists that, given freedom, could produce a press of
high standard. As far as journalistic skills are concerned, for example,
Muhammad Quchani, now editor of the daily Sharq (East) is a talented
craftsman. However, caught in the maze of factional feuds, he is often forced
to put the interests of his faction ahead of that of a good news story.
At the other end of the spectrum, Hussein Shariatmadari, Kayhan's
Editor-in-Chief, is a seasoned polemicist reflecting the views of the
''Supreme Guide''. However, he too often finds himself on rhetorical banana
skins placed by his duty to flatter the ''Big Cheese.'' For example, in a
recent editorial he claimed that a message sent by Ali Khamenei to ''The
Youth of Europe,'' which they mostly ignored, had had ''the effect of an
earthquake in the West.''
A few satirists still get away with a great deal, among them Aydin Sayyar-Sari
and Shahram Shaidi, and some dailies, including Mardom-Salari, still give
space to mordant cartoons. However, Iran, which before the revolution had
several satirical journals, lacks one today.
''Don't publish that!'' is only one kind of censorship. Even worse is another
form of censorship: ''Publish that!'' In that category newspapers are used as
propaganda sheets for the Khomeinist ideology, the global Hezbollah movement,
classical anti-Americanism, anti-Arab and anti-Israeli shibboleths, and
pipedreams about the return of the Hidden Imam and the eventual conversion of
humanity to velayat-e faqih, or rule by a single mullah.
Iranian newspapers remind me of a keen and well-prepared runner forced to
turn himself around in a tight space like a blindfolded horse rather than
join the others in the field for a marathon in which he could shine.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated
in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily
Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the
Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the
International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a
contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall
Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the
French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus.
Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt.
Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20
languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's
latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and