Too much censorship prompts Iranians get news illegally from satellite TV
by Dariush Mirzai

The closure of the reformist daily "Iran" on a pretext, confirms the regime's diffidence about information. Unclear rules leave ample room for abuse and prompt even foreign journalists to self-censorship.

Tehran (AsiaNews) – A good many Iranians are not ignorant of what is going on in the world and the perception of the same of Iran. Many illegally watch international satellite TV and tune in to opposition radios, which have a network of clandestine reporters at work in Iran. However, the national media is submitted to so many restrictions and controls that its credibility is generally very limited. Freedom of the press was already severely restricted under the government of Khatami and problems and concerns are increasing. Since 23 May, a reformist daily, Iran, is no longer being published. The official reason is linked to a cartoon considered offensive to the Turcophone minority, published not in Iran but in the weekly Iran Jomeh, which belongs to the same editorial group.

The cartoonist and the editor-in-chief of Iran Jomeh have been arrested, and 54 people who protested against the offensive cartoon in Tabriz last week, met the same fate. The issue of minorities is very sensitive and the administrative and court authorities did not hesitate to reprimand both provocateurs and protesters. Some Turcophone MPs even threatened to impeach the Minister of Culture and Islamic Orientation. This minister, Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, used to manage the ultra-conservative daily Kayhan (the quasi-official voice of the government) and clearly took advantage of the controversy to impose political sanctions against a daily which did not follow the Ahmadinejad line 100%.

The decision to close the Iran was formally reached by a committee linked to the Ministry of Culture. The decision was recently criticized by teachers and students of the official Journalism School affiliated with IRNA agency.

Between 1999 and 2004, that is, during the Khatami era, the censorship committee shut down 22 newspapers and another 81 were made to close by court order. Political pressures on the Iranian press are many, thanks to unclear rules that give ample space for interpretation to administrative and court authorities. In March 2006, the NGO Article 19 published a report in London that listed multiple restrictions on freedom of the press in Iran and structural violations of relevant international law. In Iran, penalties against journalists can be very severe, to the extent of imprisonment and physical punishment (flogging), apart from newspaper closure.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Orientation is also consulted about visits by foreign journalists. The unpredictability and arbitrariness of decisions about whether or not to grant access to Iranian territory – characterized by ever more restrictions – has at least two perverse effects: self-censorship by those who want to work regularly in Iran and the spreading of rumours, including fantastic ones, like one recent one about a plan to oblige religious minorities to wear special clothes.

Transparency clearly carries risks for authoritarian regimes, but forced isolation and ignorance will hardly serve to improve the image of the Iranian regime in the eyes of the rest of the world.