Iran's Oldest Daily Blows out 90 Candles
28 November 2015
By Amir Taheri
In a speech at the Press Expo in Tehran earlier this month, President Hassan
Rouhani expressed regret that Iranians have not succeeded in creating a
''lasting newspaper.'' He wondered why it was that the Times of London was
now in the third century of its existence while even a new country like the
United States had newspapers that were over 150 years old.
Yet, in Iran, one of the oldest nations in the world, newspapers were prone
to quick death.
One reason, of course, is that those in power in Iran during the last two
centuries, that is to say since the press arrived in the country, have always
had a peculiar habit of closing down newspapers. The first Iranian newspaper,
a government-owned weekly, appeared in 1871 and lasted for 12 years until a
newly created Ministry of Publications decided to invest in other ventures
while imposing the first system of censorship in the country. In the last
years of his reign the late Muhammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi shut down some 20
publications, among them the daily Kushesh (Effort) which, had it survived
would have been Iran's oldest newspaper today.
The current regime dominated by the mullahs started its career by closing
down more than 60 newspapers and magazines. Rouhani's administration, now in
its third year, has shut down at least a dozen.
The real miracle is that some newspapers have managed to survive. The two big
survivors are, of course, Kayhan, which at the end of the late Shah's reign
was the daily with the largest circulation in Iran, and Ettelaat which marks
its 90th anniversary this year and is thus Iran's oldest continuously
published daily newspaper.
Ettelaat first appeared in 1925 almost at the same time that Reza Shah, the
founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, was launching his ambitious modernization
plan for Iran. The daily, originally published over four pages only, was the
upgrading of a news bulletin that a young aspiring reporter named Abbas
Massoudi has started in Tehran in 1923.
Massoudi's initial aim was to create a news agency, modelled on that of
Charles Havas in Paris with bazaar merchants and senior civil and military
officials as the potential audience. Since more than 90 per cent of Iranians
were illiterate at that time there was no point in dreaming of a mass
Reza Shah's reforms, including the introduction of compulsory primary
education created the hope that within a few years Iran would have enough
people able to read and write to form a potential market for newspapers.
Finding an audience was not the only problem that Massoudi faced. While there
were numerous poets, essayists and even novelists, there was not a single
trained reporter in the whole country. Massoudi himself learned the trade by
acing as guide and ''fixer'' for Western journalists who visited Iran
occasionally, and by learning enough French to read Paris newspapers that the
French embassy received weeks, if not months after and was prepared to dole
them out to anyone who wanted them afterwards.
To his credit, Massoudi managed to train a handful of polyvalent reporters,
enough to get the paper going. Another problem, however, was how to remold
the Persian language to serve as a vehicle for disseminating news. The
Persian language had been ''colonized'' by poetry for more than 1000 years
and was incapable of reporting the mundane events of ordinary life without
sinking into a swamp of lyricism. It was necessary to de-poeticize the
language and prepare it for journalistic reporting without, however,
following the pattern set by bureaucratic and police reports.
Young Massoudi had enough charisma to attract a surprisingly large number of
literary figures prepared to work in that direction. Among them were
Muhammad-Taqi Bahar, the rising star of Persian poetry at the time, the
encyclopaedist Ali-Akbar Dehkhoda, the historian Nasrallah Falsafi and the
literary expert Saeed Nafisi.
Later they were joined by a number of other figures who were to play major
roles in Iranian journalism, among them Zayn al-Abedin Rahnama, Habib-Allah
Amuzegar and Ahmad Dehqan.
One task they faced was to build a new vocabulary to express new realities.
Iran was invaded by new products, cars, railways, airplanes, telegram,
telephone, banking, factories, radio modern weaponry and Western-made
pharmaceuticals to name but a few. Then there were new emerging institutions
such as schools, universities, research centers, operas, concert halls,
cinema, government departments and new businesses needing new terms and
jargon. By one estimate, the editorial staff of Ettelaat and their unpaid
advisors coined more than 12000 new words in the first decade of the paper's
Massoudi was born a reporter and firmly believed that the only job that
mattered in a newspaper was that of the reporter. As a cub reporter for the
rival daily Kayhan, I came to know Massoudi when he was in his late 60s, a
senator and boss of a press empire. I was always surprised why such a ''big
boss'' insisted to cover some news stories himself. In later years as I got
to know him better, I understood that he cared little for money, fame and
influence; he would give all that up for one good story for his newspaper.
According to French Iranologist Roger Lescaut who wrote a fascinating book
about Iran's jump towards modernity in the two decades that preceded the
Second World War, Ettelaat played a crucial role in popularizing key themes
of reform, change and modernization. It opened a window to a new world in the
creation of which Iranians had played no part but, both fascinated and
frightened by it, wished to join it. This was a world of science, industry,
technology, legal equality, and confidence in a better future.
Ettelaat spearheaded the campaign for women's rights, launched in the 1930s,
supported the creation of a national army based on conscription and the
dramatic changes in the way Iranians dressed and appeared in public. It put
an interview with Elli Beinhorn, a German lady pilot on its front page to
hammer in the idea that women are as capable as men in all domains.
Massoudi's initiative inspired many others to launch newspapers, giving
modern Iran a dynamic and versatile press within a decade. By the 1930s,
Tehran boasted 11 dailies and half a dozen weeklies. Some, like Shafaq Sorkh
(Red Dawn) and Setareh Jahan (Star of the World) reached mass circulation
level. Others like ''Iqdam'' (Action) and ''Iran'' specialized in social and
political debates. The only daily to compete with Ettelaat for news was ''Kushesh''
(Effort) which had initially appeared as a weekly four years earlier.
However, thanks to Massoudi's passion for news rather than views, Ettelaat
retained a clear advantage as a source of information.
In 1941 on the eve of the invasion of Iran by the Allies, Ettelaat had
reached a daily circulation of 35,000, a truly massive figure for those days.
Over the decades it established its prestige as Iran's newspaper of record,
always avoiding sensationalism and adopting a moderate stance even on the
most controversial issues of the day.
After the war, Iranian press experienced a veritable explosion of energy as
the number of dailies rose to a staggering 30, many of them organs of
political parties and trade unions.
Unlike its rival Kayhan which had only four editors in the first 40 years of
its existence, Ettelaat changed editors with the same frequency as Massoudi
replaced the paper's old printing presses. Thus few of Ettelaat's editors had
enough time to put their personal imprint on the paper. Among those who did
were Majid Davami, Ahmad Shahidi and Touraj Farazmand.
Ettelaat was where reporters and editorialists made their names, not editors.
The paper's Oil Correspondent Ali Bastani became an authority on his subject
for almost 20 years. Its Diplomatic Correspondent Muhammad Pourdad was a
pioneer in covering foreign policy related news stories. Leader writers Ahmad
Ahrar and Ali Javaher-Kalam became respected voices of authority with daily
editorials along with columnists such as Muhamad Mohit-Tabatabi and Ibrahim
Bastani-Parizi. Feature editors such as Alireza Taheri and Jahangir Jalili
introduced a whole set of new subjects to the paper. Muhammad Massoud, one of
Iran's most famous journalists, first made his name with semi-fictional
serial reportages in Ettelaat.
When the mullahs seized power in Tehran in 1979, their first aim was to seize
control of the mass circulation Kayhan as well as the radio and television
networks. That meant that Ettelaat was not a priority target for the
revolutionary mullahs. The paper was taken over by the Foundation for the
Dispossessed controlled by Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini. Ettelaat somehow
managed to pass under the radar, retaining a good part of its staff and style
while others suffered massive purges of personnel and policy.
Ettelaat has managed something even more incredible: not becoming a mere tool
of propaganda for the current Iranian regime. To be sure, its director and
editors are appointed by the''Supreme Guide'' and its policy cannot deviate
from that of the regime on any significant issue. Nevertheless, it has
retained a tiny space of freedom which it still uses with as much efficiency
as is possible under Khomeinist tutelage. It remains the Islamic Republic's
most reliable, or if you like least unreliable, newspaper.
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 New York.