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Iranian Law and the Media*


Writing about the Iranian print media, one may take the risk of running after a train that has already departed (the electronic media, being in the monopoly of the government, hence far less susceptible to change, is another story). No sooner is an analytical essay on the Iranian press published than the situation may change, leaving the author in the unenviable state of being irrelevant. When reprinting essays published on the subject years ago, footnotes should be added to explain the atmosphere of the bygone era being discussed. Phrases such as ‘now defunct’ or ‘ceased publication’ are often inserted in retrospections so to describe the newspapers in question.

This precarious state of affairs is by no means caused by a shortage of press laws, six of which have been enacted since the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. The first press lawsuit was filed by no less an authority than the penultimate Qajar monarch Mohammad Ali Shah. Advised that winning the case would be as bad as losing against a vociferous journalist, the monarch reached an out-of-court settlement that he withdraw the complaint and the reckless editor-publisher lower his inflammatory tone.

That was in the late 1900s, a time when the burgeoning Iranian press, among other things, felt obliged to compensate for a lack of books on politics, while taking sides in the endless political rivalries and quarrels.


In 1920, in the second out-of-court press settlement, the grand vizier of Ahmad Shah, Qajar’s last monarch, arranged that the two defendants, who had vehemently attacked the crown and seemed poised to win the trial, leave the capital and the case be closed


The vehement press attacks on almost everything and everybody ended with a regime change a few years later. A similar outburst of free press in the late 1940s was brought to an end by another coup in 1953. The vicious circle of a thunderous press stifled by repressive measures was repeated in the 1979-1981 and 1997-99 periods.

In all those vicissitudes, the tool supposed to be vitally needed for more discipline was an up-to-date press law. A comparative study of all relevant laws in the last nine decades may add up to a full volume, but the common fate of all those legislations has been that they, in effect, remained on paper, simply because they were not needed in the first place. When and if powers that be decide that enough is enough and a crack down on an obstinate publication, or a dozen of them, is indispensable, they cling to any pretext and resort to any law, regulation or memo that could serve the purpose. Very rarely, if ever at all, can the press enjoy the benefit of the doubt when it comes to a lawsuit as a result of challenging the established authority.

What the governments favour is the so-called constructive criticism; what the readership demands from the press is to reveal the truth, meaning that the incumbent government is exposed as a bunch of treacherous thieves. But who is to discern fair criticism from mendacious coverage?

The idea of having a jury in the courtroom has never been part of the Iranian penal code. Borrowed from the West, engaging the public in matters of deciding what is good for them is not only incompatible with rule from above, but is anathema to the Islamic jurisprudence that is based on the ‘omniscience of the judge.’ By inviting comments from the common folk, the Islamic jurisprudence may find itself subject to demands for amending the tenets of faith or even discarding some of them altogether.

Shortly before one more wave of press closures and journalist arrests in the 1990s amid the crescendo of an outcry for bolstering the civil society, a press jury had been formed to oversee lawsuits filed against the reform-minded press. Meanwhile, the prosecutor’s office was deleted from the Iranian judicial system, on the grounds that it did not exist in the Islamic canon (it was later restored). The end result was a court in which the judge played the roles of the magistrate and the prosecutor as well, while a jury attended to advise him.

Ceremonial resemblance is, however, deemed harmless. In Iran’s legal procedure, being charged should not be taken synonymous with the application of the word in many other judicial systems. When an indicted journalist is subpoenaed, the list of offences may add up to a dozen. In the court, almost all of the charges may be dropped, with the remaining one sending the defendant to jail for years. Here a ‘charge’ more often than not means a complaint on the part of the government and/or its pressure groups, rather than being a documented assertion by the magistrate that a certain article of the law has been breached.

Traditionally, Iranian press laws stipulated that when and if the publisher was a resident of Iran, the author of a questionable piece was exempt from prosecution. In 1996, a supine parliament amended it so that the contributor shared the burden of the offence. In 2001, a succeeding reformist-dominated Majlis’ attempt to amend the press law so to relieve the author from liability, on the grounds that it entailed self-censorship, was torpedoed by a decree.

Another attempt by the same reformist Majlis succeeded to go through, but it was shelved too. Taking the example of jury-based systems, supporters of the bill argued that the jury should not comprise a hand-picked group of officials, but should represent all strata and layers of society at large. The implementation of the new legislation, the Judiciary later argued, was ‘too costly to be affordable.’

In a similar attempt, for years there has been talk of drafting a law upon which to hear cases of political offence, as stipulated by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Once again form runs counter to the substance. When and if a certain political behaviour in a small town, or a piece published in an obscure newspaper, is deemed liable to prosecution, allowing the defence lawyer to address public hearings complete with television cameras that would bring the defendant overnight international celebrity is the last thing legislators and prosecutors desire.

Such a hearing would make sense only when and if there exists a consensus and charges are based on common laws already taken for granted. In Iran, one can hardly talk of consensus. What can be detected is a confrontation of subcultures that have only agreed to disagree. Moreover, in a culture imbued with deep-seated cynicism, indicting someone as political offender is a recipe for deploying the victim to the martyrs’ Pantheon.

Round the turn of the twentieth century, Iranian constitutionalist intellectuals were obsessed with the notion that law per se was a panacea. After decades of legislation, certainly there do exist enough laws for any kind of press court or political offence hearing. Nevertheless, the obsession persists, because the required underlying consensus is not forged yet. Nor is an establishment based on the division of the branches of state anywhere to be seen. The side putting the media insiders on trial claims to represent an unassailable truth beyond dispute  i.e., national interests and what is deemed expedient by the government  while defendants reason that they are being persecuted merely as dissidents. There is a vexing organic incongruity between what is cherished by the intellectuals and demanded by the reformists, what is preached by the religious canon, and what is adopted as pro-forma legal procedures.




Among the achievements of the 2000-2004 reformist parliament was the introduction of a law extending the accountability of the press to the state-controlled radio-television. In the sixty years since Radio Tehran started airing in 1940, followed by television two decades later, the two media (if not vox populi but at least as sort of vox dei) had remained beyond all formal complaint. In the late 1990s, attacking the political opposition and excommunicating the dissidents and the press supporting them took a major part of the network’s airing time.

Now anyone who had reasons to believe that their reputation had been tarnished by the state-owned electronic media could legally ask for equal airing time to defend themselves. No bold challenger has yet tested the long overdue law that may remain a token on paper for years to come.

Nevertheless, personal attacks with impunity on political opponents inside the establishment, once being routine, seem to have considerably subsided. A recent on-and-off debate has been as to whether announcing the identity of individuals labelled as ‘economic corrupts,’ before any due court hearing, is permissible. The political opposition outside the establishment cannot expect as much restraint from the state radio and television channels.

As these words are being written, things are changing towards more restrictions. In the ongoing international dispute over uranium enrichment inside Iran, the press is strictly forbidden to comment on the issue or publish letters-to-the-editor advocating approaches other than the official stance. It is reminiscent of the 1980s when discussing the continuation of the war with Iraq was off limit. The Press Law stipulates that government officials who hinder the freedom of the press in publishing articles beneficial to the public good would be liable to litigation. In this way, the issue is how to define, and who defines, public good.

Press offences are often dealt with according to the Penal Code, or by invoking no law at all. One frequent charge is, “fabricating lies in order to disturb the minds of the public.”  In fact, Iranian governments, before and after the 1979 revolution, have cracked down on the press upon expediency and with draconian laws and decrees. No wonder few journalists can see enough reasons to take the Press Law seriously. Nevertheless, preoccupation with the law could linger and attempts to change or amend it may repeat.



 ٭  Paper presented at the workshop of Communications for Development, Istanbul, June 2006.


Persian text


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