The new president may have limited power to enact change, but the practical needs for communications technology may work in favor of a freer press. By D. Parvaz

In his early months in office, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, pictured in Tehran June 17, 2013, focused primarily on foreign affairs. (Reuters/Fars News/Majid Hagdost)
In his early months in office, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, pictured in Tehran June 17, 2013, focused primarily on foreign affairs. (Reuters/Fars News/Majid Hagdost)

Hassan Rouhani and
The Hope for More Freedom in Iran

By D. Parvaz

Anyone focused on the June 2013 presidential campaign in Iran probably noticed two things: the winner, President Hassan Rouhani, courted the youth and reformist vote before the actual reformist, Mohamed Reza Aref, dropped out, and Rouhani used social media, in English and Farsi, to communicate, even though it is banned in Iran.

In his early months in office, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, pictured in Tehran June 17, 2013, focused primarily on foreign affairs. (Reuters/Fars News/Majid Hagdost)
In his early months in office, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, pictured in Tehran June 17, 2013, focused primarily on foreign affairs. (Reuters/Fars News/Majid Hagdost)

Since he took office on August 3, Rouhani has also built on comments he made during the televised debates about excessive controls forced on Iranians, especially in the areas of arts and media–references that appeared to close the door on eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hard-line administration.

It’s unclear how much power Rouhani has to change how Iran’s press operates, assuming he genuinely desires reform, because Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has final say and veto power. Nevertheless, there is an air of optimism and watchfulness in the country, where every small gesture is seen as a potential omen of greater freedom. Two factors that may work in favor of the press are the practical needs for liberalized communications technology and the continued engagement of young journalists.

“The red lines and censorship have eased, for no particular reason,” said one reporter in Tehran who was awaiting trial on charges of threatening national security and who declined to be named. He noted that the same thing happened during reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s time in office, and that journalists were working in a relatively “calm situation.”

For instance, immediately after Rouhani was elected, while Ahmadinejad was still in office, Viber, a Voice over Internet Protocol application that provides access to the Internet, was unblocked.

And, in September, when Facebook and Twitter became accessible for a few hours, both were abuzz with word that things had changed. The access turned out to be a technical error, and both sites were blocked again, but the response was overwhelming and telling.

Iran strictly controls the entry and movement of foreign journalists within its borders, where press credentials can be revoked if the government is displeased with how something is reported. For example, in 2012, the Reuters news agency temporarily lost its press credentials in Iran after characterizing female martial artists as “assassins.”

And in 2011, the government temporarily revoked the press credentials of 11 foreign correspondents for reporting on anti-government protests. There was little reporting and complaint on this issue by the news organizations involved because they feared not getting their credentials back.

The U.S. at times plays a similar game with Iranian journalists, as CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon pointed out in Foreign Policy magazine, with few visas being granted for Iranian reporters, and those who are admitted generally restricted within a 25-mile radius of U.N. headquarters. Simon urges an end to what he described as the “Cold War-era” constraints both countries are placing on each other’s journalists.

“Based on what he has said about opening up the academic scene and his appointment of a competent lady as his [vice-president] for Women and Family Affairs, it is not farfetched that Rouhani will also seek to loosen up on the crackdowns,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, the president of the International Society for Iranian Studies and the director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Syracuse University. “I expect fewer charges filed against journalists, more licenses issued to reformist news outlets, less censorship of books and newspapers.”

Even within the limited framework of presidential powers, there are changes that Rouhani could make–or at least push for–that would dramatically alter Iran’s media landscape. With opposition outlets routinely censored or shut down, and only a handful of major reformist newspapers, such as Shargh and Etemad, still operating, the terrain now is barren except for state news agencies and hard-line publications. Even officially approved newspapers and websites are subject to periodic bans and shutdowns.

Well-known reporters such as Mohammad Davari and Masoud Bastani, both among those arrested after the disputed 2009 presidential elections, remain technically under arrest while being granted occasional furloughs (in Davari’s case, after suffering a heart attack upon hearing of his brother’s death).

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran has prepared an extensive roadmap that offers Rouhani realistic suggestions, ones that focus on changes he could make at the ministerial and legislative levels.

“The best place to start is to put in place infrastructural protections for press freedom, so that not only under Rouhani would the situation improve, but beyond him, so they are not specific to his government,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based rights group.

Introducing legislation on press freedom that explicitly defines and protects free speech would be crucial, as would Ministry of Labor regulations allowing independent associations representing the interests of journalists (something that has been under attack since the journalists association was shut down in 2009 and has not been allowed to function since).

The roadmap also suggests that permits for publishing newspapers and press credentials for local and foreign journalists be granted without consideration of political views. Government agencies should be prevented from filing lawsuits against media outlets and journalists who report critically on the state. “They need to promote a culture of tolerance of criticism,” Ghaemi said.

Ghaemi also complains that far too many ministries have a hand in media control and censorship, making it impossible to keep track of the standards and practices that journalists are expected to maintain. Though the media fall under the control of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (simply referred to as “ershad,” or guidance, in Farsi), reporters, editors and bloggers are arrested by the judiciary. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Intelligence plays both surveillance and censorship games with the press.

“This is why we need legislation which would overall define the boundaries of press freedoms according to the constitution and international obligations,” Ghaemi said. “One ministry that certainly interferes with the working press, even though it is not within its mandate, is the Ministry of Intelligence, which regularly outlines what is allowed to be published and what is not allowed to be published to editors.”

Complicating matters further is that it is not simply a matter of what is reported or published, but how the state chooses to interpret it.

A CPJ special report showed that in the lead-up to the 2013 elections, at least 40 journalists were imprisoned in Iran. Most were charged with either “spreading propaganda against the state,” “acting against national security,” or “insulting the supreme leader.” Given Iran’s pattern of rotating critical journalists in and out of prison, and the difficulty of confirming the motives behind a journalists’ detention, it’s possible that more are incarcerated. In March, the Ministry of Intelligence announced that 600 Iranian journalists were believed to be part of an anti-state network.

Any efforts by Rouhani to end intimidation of the media could fail, as Syracuse University’s Boroujerdi points out.

“A great deal will depend on what Rouhani accomplishes on the foreign policy front. If he is successful, then he will have the necessary political capital to take on the conservatives on a range of domestic issues including press freedom,” Boroujerdi said.

“However, his failure on the foreign policy front will embolden the conservatives to torpedo his domestic initiatives as a way of discrediting him. Rouhani and his people have learned from the experience of Khatami and will try to avoid the mistakes he made,” Boroujerdi said. “By the same token I don’t think he will be as brazen as Khatami on the media freedom issue.”

Even when Khatami tried to cleanse the Ministry of Intelligence of those who focused on the press, some of those individuals ended up in what Ghaemi described as “parallel institutions” close to the supreme leader, where they were still able to exert influence.

For example, the reformist journalist Akbar Ganji was imprisoned during Khatami’s administration because his reporting on a series of political killings threatened the positions of several hard-liners linked to the Ministry of Intelligence.

During Ahmadinejad’s administration, even hard-line journalists loyal to him were detained. The arrest of his media adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who was apprehended in 2011 by security officers representing the judiciary, shows just how out of the president’s reach such matters can be.

The hope for better conditions is not an abstraction. Reporters working in Iran, which CPJ ranked as the fourth-most-censored country in the world in 2012, continually risk their liberty and even their lives. Detention, investigation, and criminal charges are routine.

One reporter, willing to talk only on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, described reporting during Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office in stark terms.

“We worked for eight years in hell,” she said, detailing years of reporting in fear, watching her colleagues go into exile, and knowing that if she ever left her country, she might never be able to return–an unacceptable sacrifice.

A respected veteran who reported for more than a decade for various print publications–some shut down by the government–she was arrested and held in solitary confinement. She spoke while out on bail and barred from leaving the country, awaiting a court date on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda, which is punishable by up to one year in prison.

The reporter said she has hope for a better legal process under the government, but little hope for a freer press. “Even during Khatami’s government, many of the journalists, such as Akbar Ganji, Abbas Abdi, Ahmad Zaidabadi, Alireza Eshraghi, and many more were in jail,” she said.

Things were worse under Ahmadinejad, she said, when “more journalists were in jail, especially after the 2009 election,” when street protests over the contested results set loose a campaign of repression that did not let up for four years.

The reporter pointed to the many Iranian journalists forced into exile for fear of lengthy jail sentences–or worse, as in the case of blogger Sattar Beheshti, who, the authorities said, “died of shock” on November 3, 2012, his fifth day in custody. He was never charged with a crime and never set foot in a court.

In a recorded Skype conversation with a friend shortly before his detention and death, Beheshti spoke of leaving the country, worrying that his elderly mother would not be able to tolerate the strain of his arrest.

Although he said he couldn’t understand why his notebooks had been confiscated by the authorities, as they contained nothing controversial, Beheshti seemed resigned to the worst.

“If they want to throw a noose around my neck,” Beheshti said, “I’d say that there’s honor in this death compared to the shame of this life.” Family members were not allowed to view his body and opposition media reported they were attacked by plainclothes security men at a memorial service for him.

Censorship is not new to Iran and was imposed long before the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Successive regimes have maintained tight control not only over what is published and broadcast but also over the flow of information, how information is communicated.

For example, in February 2012, more than a dozen reporters were arrested, with warrants issued for many more, not because of what they had reported, but because of their contact with foreign media.

Iran’s censors also have a reputation of keeping up with new technologies. Social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked and banned, accessible within the county only via Virtual Private Networks. Surprisingly, however–while officials have never acknowledged it–all presidential candidates in the 2013 race had Twitter and Facebook accounts. Rouhani still has one, @HassanRouhani, which tweets in English. In September, Twitter verified the account of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, even though his tweets are not legally accessible to those inside the country.

Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog for digital rights based in San Francisco, suggested this should not be viewed as a signal that restrictions on such media are about to be lifted. However, she said, “it shows that there’s an understanding of how organizing and politics will work in the future, and if the authorities have any success in using those tools, then hopefully, they’ll be able to see the benefit of keeping the Internet open enough for communication with the rest of the world.”

York described Iran as being “on par with China” when it comes to digital freedom, particularly because both countries make a point of going after tools intended to protect privacy. “They’re the best at keeping one step ahead of Internet users,” she said. “The blocking of websites is quick, often for a particular time to coincide with a particular event or an election.”

York said she hoped that Rouhani would at least take steps to ensure access to communication technology–if not for the sake of a free press, then for other more pragmatic reasons. “While blocking political speech is terrible, the blocking of communication technologies does more to inhibit the educational and economic growth of the nation,” she said. She added that the lifting of some U.S. sanctions on Iran has also eased the crippling effect on some communications technologies.

Akbar Ganji, a veteran journalist who lives in exile in the U.S., expects Rouhani to “pursue increased freedoms for media and political parties,” he said. But, while he expects improvement compared with Ahmadinejad’s time in office, Ganji, who spent years in prison under a reformist president, added, “It’s unlikely to be as good as the time of the reformists. The hard-liners are holding strong to ensure that that era is not repeated.”

In his first months in office, Rouhani focused primarily on foreign affairs. He reached out to the West, particularly Washington, not only via social media, but also at the United Nations and by granting interviews and writing an opinion column in The Washington Post calling for measured negotiations with the U.S. And there were genuine signs of change in Iran: In September, the authorities freed 11 political prisoners, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, a celebrated rights lawyer who represented activists and journalists and was serving a six-year prison sentence for “threatening national security.”

Meanwhile, Ghaemi, head of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said the pool of young journalists willing to come forward has not yet run dry in Iran, where the government has failed to create a press corps “confined to regime loyalists.”

These journalists are the ones who keep getting arrested, keep getting released and keep on writing, again and again. “No matter how many waves of arrests, detentions and harassment of journalists we’ve had, which have landed many in jail, hundreds of them fleeing the country, journalism remains a very essential part of Iranian society in terms of continuing to produce new journalists who refuse to be silenced,” Ghaemi said.

D. Parvaz, a reporter and special projects editor, works for Al-Jazeera English and is based in Doha, Qatar.

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