As Iran's June 2013 presidential election approaches, the media landscape is extremely bleak. At the last election, in 2009, journalists took advantage of a slight loosening of the country's traditionally stringent media controls to push against the boundaries, bringing the world news of alleged voting irregularities, public anger, protests, and the ensuing crackdown by the hard-line leadership.
That crackdown, however, hit the media sector as hard as any. The authorities have used imprisonment, the closing of news outlets, the intimidation of reporters and sources, and suffocating Internet surveillance to silence the independent media. Scores of journalists have fled into exile. With only a handful of severely weakened reformist media outlets now operating in Iran, and with most working journalists in fear of the revolving door to the country's courts and prisons, a repeat of 2009 seems unlikely. Without any kind of free or healthy press, and with reformist leaders under house arrest, political discourse has been quashed.
"We've never had any press freedoms in Iran; we censored ourselves and we were able to report within those confines. But it's become much worse," said exiled journalist Delbar Tavakoli, who wrote for Etemad-e-Melli and the now-banned Sarmayeh. "Many of our best journalists have had to quit their jobs and change their professions--perhaps going into the arts or [becoming] taxi drivers," said Tavakoli, who now lives in France and works for the Farsi branch of Radio France Internationale. "The people we have in Iran--with all the talent and ability they have--they can't work."
One journalist and media analyst working in Tehran said that "we don't see any signs of things improving--never mind that. We get regular government directives that place new limitations on what we can report, ones well beyond political reporting." The journalist, who did not want to be named for safety reasons, added, "Now the issue is topics such as the price of chicken, the rising rate of the U.S. dollar" against the rial. "This sort of thing just pushes us further away from being able to effectively report important political issues, such as elections."
And yet Iran is under intense international pressure over its nuclear ambitions and its economy is staggering. The country's ever-shifting internal political rifts and alliances are difficult for even close observers to grasp. All this makes it impossible to know how media coverage of the election will play out. Despite Iran's long history of censorship, journalists have a tradition of seizing on any opportunity to report, even when a harsh reaction looms.
Under the constitution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cannot stand for re-election to a third term, leaving the 2013 vote a contest between his supporters and the conservative backers of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad, once part of the conservative establishment himself, fell out of favor with Khamenei as he struggled to form his own power base. Among the early front-runners in the establishment camp were Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and Mohamad-Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran. In October, as Iran's currency tumbled, Larijani and Ahmadinejad publicly traded barbs over the latter's management of the economy.
Elections in Iran are usually tightly managed, with the choice of presidential and parliamentary candidates limited to those pre-approved by the establishment. The results are often locked up before polls even open. Three and a half years ago, Iranian authorities appeared highly confident that Ahmadinejad would win his second term in office. Amid this hubris, the regime seemed to allow a small window for the tightly controlled media to dispatch articles, interviews, and sound bites in the run-up to the vote.
"Things were pretty open--people were pretty confident before the elections," said Golnoush Niknejad, editor-in-chief and founder of Tehran Bureau, a website dedicated to covering Iran from within, using Iranian journalists whenever possible. "The campaign seemed different. The government allowed for live, televised debates and wanted to make it seem like people, especially young people, were participating in the elections," said Niknejad, who is based in Boston. "Before 2009, we didn't even have people using pseudonyms. People thought if they were doing a fair job of reporting, then they didn't have anything to worry about."
But the small freedoms that are allowed in Iran are calculated, with the aims of presenting the country as a functioning democracy and getting a read on who will report what. By allowing such leeway from time to time, Tavakoli said, the government can get "the full measure of their opponents," which include the nonstate media as well as the opposition. She likened Tehran's control of the press to flying a kite. "Sometimes you give more string, sometimes you pull back--but you keep enough tension to keep the kite afloat," she said.
When Ahmadinejad was declared the 2009 election winner, millions who had supported reformist candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi took to the streets to protest, and the uproar appeared to take the regime by surprise. The Green Movement, as reformers called it, flowed through the veins of Iran's cities, filling squares and major thoroughfares. As protesters clashed with security forces, violence spread through streets and neighborhoods. Homes were raided and activists, politicians, and journalists alike were targeted by the regime. Tweet-by-tweet reporting had proved more than the government would tolerate.
"What happened on the 22nd of Khordad [Election Day on the Iranian calendar] was a destructive tsunami," said the journalist in Tehran. In the weeks after the vote, journalists faced unprecedented levels of censorship, threats, and arrests.
"Every day, it seemed, there were fewer of us at editorial meetings, and this went on not just for a month or three months, but for a year," the journalist said. "Every day, we'd hear that more of our colleagues had been arrested."
State agents were busy identifying reporters at the scenes of demonstrations. "In the first days after the elections, we saw these guys filming us and we asked, 'What are you getting footage for?'" Tavakoli said. "And they just smiled and said, 'You'll see.'"
The August 2009 raid on the Tehran offices of the Association of Iranian Journalists signaled a sea change. "It was something like a coup," said Ali Mazrooei, who was the director of the association at the time. The group's offices remain closed. Mazrooei now runs the reformist news site Razhesabz from Belgium. "The situation is getting worse than before," Mazrooei said. "There's no freedom for reporters and for press."
CPJ surveys over the past three years have found that Iran imprisons at least 40 to 50 journalists at any given time, making the country one of the worst jailers of journalists worldwide. Most are held on anti-state charges. Throughout this period, the authorities have maintained a revolving prison door, freeing some detainees on furloughs even as they arrest others. Freed prisoners are called back seemingly at random, sometimes repeatedly.
Zhila Bani-Yaghoub, who worked for a number of nonstate media outlets, began serving a one-year sentence in September 2012 for "insulting" Ahmadinejad and "spreading propaganda." But her time served will be only a beginning--she's also been banned from practicing journalism for 30 years. Bani-Yaghoub's ban is a particularly lengthy court-imposed sanction, but the government can also simply refuse to renew a journalist's work permit, achieving the same effect in a less blatant way.
CPJ has documented that at least 68 Iranian journalists have fled into exile over the past five years, although some Iranians believe the actual numbers to be much higher. Mazrooei estimates that about 160 journalists have gone into exile since the 2009 elections and that an equal number are in jail. Masih Alinejad, a prominent exiled journalist who lives in the United Kingdom, said in a 2010 interview that international records do not take into account lesser-known reporters working for small outlets in small towns. Tavakoli also said the government is no longer arresting only key media figures. "There used to be the case that only high-profile targets were arrested," she said. "Now, they can't tolerate any noise."
News outlets, too, are subject to bans--some permanent and others intermittent. A handful of reformist outlets still operate inside the country, but they are vulnerable to the whims of the hard-liners. For example, Shargh, a reformist newspaper, has been ordered to cease publishing four times in eight years. In September 2012, the government suspended Shargh after the paper published a cartoon that some interpreted as insulting the Basij militia. An arrest order for its editor, Mehdi Rahmanian, was also issued.
The reformist movement now largely counts on foreign-based sites more than domestic ones for news--such as Mousavi's August 2012 trip to the hospital under tight security, which went unreported by official news agencies. Online reformist publications operating from abroad, such as Mazrooei's Razhesabz, are intermittently blocked for Iranian users.
Indeed, censorship of the Internet and other telecommunications has been at the heart of the regime's strategy of control. Iran has invested heavily in technology and personnel with the explicit intent of restricting Web access. Iranians face frequent slowdowns in Internet service; Twitter is periodically blocked; and while Google's Gmail service was once considered safe, Google revealed in 2011 that the Iranian government had been intercepting Gmail messages. Most Iranians assume that landlines or mobile phones are monitored, although some are comfortable using voice-over-Internet-protocol such as Skype.
When discussing countries that pose threats to global cybersecurity, Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, told CNN in December 2011 that Iranian authorities are "unusually talented" in cyberwar. "You always worry that the Iranians have somehow broken into some of the encrypted software that's used to control things," he said.
Even if journalists dared to report in this climate of fear, it's unlikely that sources would speak to them. Trust between reporters and their sources, fundamental to newsgathering everywhere, is critical in a place like Iran. The country's interrogators are practiced at drawing confessions, sometimes creating informants out of their terrified subjects. Under duress in detention, the prominent journalists Roxana Saberi and Maziar Bahari both confessed to acting against the Islamic Republic. Tavakoli said that she fled into exile not because she feared for herself, but because of the threat that her arrest could pose to others.
Given Iran's lack of transparency concerning public records, most reporting is done on the streets. But reformists are not given permits to gather; since 2010, the few reformist demonstrations of note have been silent protests, as any chanting would prompt an attack from the Basijis, the state militia often seen charging crowds on motorcycles, wielding batons. With no events to report on the street, the story of Iran's dissent remains hidden--difficult and risky for reporters to dig up and present. Even when mass arrests of journalists are not happening, tight surveillance and random punishment still have a chilling effect, something Niknejad describes as "psychological warfare."
"There won't be any chance for any coverage," Mazrooei said of the coming elections. Reporters "prefer to be silent to see what is going on with the country. They are waiting."
Niknejad is almost certain that she will not have access to a wealth of journalists in Iran by election time. "I don't think that the environment is going to be there," she said. "So much can happen between now and the election. At the end of the day, they will make sure that the situation [in 2009] does not happen again."
Tavakoli described the current practice of journalism in Iran as "a radical act" mostly because so few dare to do it. "With this regime," she said, "the future of journalism grows darker by the day."
Still, Iran remains an enigma, even to those who cover the country from within and have intimate knowledge of the government's workings--including close encounters with the regime's interrogators and prisons. Potential shifts in the country's internal power structure could shape what happens on the streets and how the media cover it.
Mazrooei acknowledges that things could change rapidly before the election. "We don't even know what's going to happen next week, let alone by then."
D. Parvaz, a journalist and Middle East analyst, works for Al-Jazeera and is based in Doha, Qatar.