First Person

How journalists do their work in Iran

February 22, 2023
TEHRAN, IRAN - OCTOBER 01: (EDITORS NOTE: Image taken with mobile phone camera.) Iranian protesters set fire to property while marching down a street on October 1, 2022 in Tehran, Iran. Protests over the death of 22-year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini have continued to intensify despite crackdowns by the authorities, The 22-year-old Iranian fell into a coma and died after being arrested in Tehran by the morality police, for allegedly violating the countries hijab rules. (Photo by Getty Images)

The modern history of journalism in Iran has been driven by the battle between the nation’s liberal and repressive politics. 

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, more than two hundred publications across the political spectrum blossomed before withering again with the rise of extremists and the start of the Iran-Iraq War. In 1997, with the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the number of newspapers and magazines increased again, as did their popularity. Newspapers took advantage of these new freedoms to criticize the government’s policies and performance and to question the rulers’ ideology.

But the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a speech in May 2000 where he implicitly directed the mass closure of the press. After that, a large number of journalists were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. 

Until recently, the Iranian media landscape had been stable on roughly those terms. National TV, or The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, a state-controlled media corporation, has a monopoly on domestic radio and television services. Its head is appointed directly by the Ayatollah Khamenei.

Most print journalists, too, are to some extent controlled by the government and security institutions, and Keyhan, Fars News Agency, and Tasnim are generally controlled, directly or indirectly, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the nation’s feared enforcers. 

A few newspapers, like Shargh, Etemad, and Ham-Mihan, could offer limited criticism of the government, but many Iranians sought their news from outlets outside the country. 

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It is generally taboo to write about certain topics in Iranian media. As a reporter, I would not directly write about topics like women’s rights. But I found ways to address these issues. For years I worked with Iranian media in Afghanistan. Afghan women had the right to go to sports stadiums to watch soccer; women in Iran did not have this right. I wrote about women in the Kabul stadium cheering for their teams. The Iranian audience could understand that I was also advocating Iranian women’s rights.

As a journalist in Iran, if you cross the red lines in a more obvious fashion, you suffer the consequences. I learned this in 2009, when I was placed in solitary confinement in Evin prison for 124 days under charges of “slander against the government and propaganda against the regime because of writing about Iran for international and Western media.”

Iranian security institutions recently leveled charges against two female journalists, Elaha Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi, for “dependency on Western intelligence services that organized periods of subversion and combined wars in some countries.” Hamedi was the first journalist to write about twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini, who fell into a coma after she was taken into custody by Iran’s morality police for incorrectly wearing a headscarf on September 13, 2022, and lost her life after. 

Iranian authorities say Amini died due to preexisting health issues, but her family denies she had any such problems and accuses the morality police of beating their daughter. Hamedi captured photos of Amini’s grieving family embracing in the hospital. The pictures went viral, and as Iran’s streets filled with demonstrators outraged by Amini’s death, security forces arrested Hamedi. 

Mohammadi went to Saqqez, in Kurdistan Province, western Iran, to report on Amini’s funeral, a massive procession where mourners chanted “Death to the dictator” and “Women, Life, Freedom.” Shortly after she returned to Tehran, Mohammadi was also arrested. Both Hamedi and Mohammadi have been held in solitary confinement with no sign they will be released. 

Their stories helped spark ongoing protests. During the past four months, a large number of protesters were shot dead, arrested, or sentenced to death. So far, four people have been executed by the government on charges of “corruption on the earth.” Iran’s leader blames “the enemy” and “Western governments.” 

A more likely factor: Iran’s annual inflation rate hit 54 percent last year. Many previously middle-class Iranians were pushed into poverty, and the application of international sanctions makes living conditions more difficult every day for the more than eighty million Iranian people. 

For reporters, as for the government and most Iranians, this increase in tension has changed everything. When the protests began, reporters covered them openly. Saeed, forty-five, who asked to give only his first name for fear of reprisal, wrote live Twitter updates from alleyways as he followed the protests through the streets. 

But the security forces have been brutal in their crackdown. At least sixty-two journalists have been arrested in Iran this year; the real number is likely much higher. “When my colleagues and close friends were arrested, I closed my Twitter page,” Saeed said. “So now I only follow Twitter news with a fake account.” 

Protesters now use a mix of platforms—including Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Clubhouse—to spread news. They are joined by Persian-language news stations based outside of Iran that can report on the topics banned from appearing in domestic media.

Iranians also use VPNs or proxy networks to follow the news on blocked social media sites. Many political analysts, journalists, and people from different political groups organize rooms in Clubhouse, whose audiences sometimes reach thirty thousand. Citizen journalists from tiny towns across Iran have played an essential role in informing the public by sending their photos and videos to social media and Farsi-language media outside Iran. Persian-language television news channels, with offices in some Western countries, provide an essential alternative source. Additionally, some professional journalists inside Iran work anonymously, at significant personal risk, to get information out through international and social media. They can be arrested at any time. The government often tracks their IP addresses.

“Journalism in these conditions of Iran is like walking in a minefield. At any moment, you may be arrested just because of a tweet or even publishing news in the official newspaper,” said Sina, a thirty-year-old journalist who works with domestic newspapers in Iran, via a chat room on Twitter. He said that if you publish news without coordinating with a media official, you are at risk of arrest. 

Even social media can be easily abused when information is so limited. Armies of trolls and bots (from inside and outside Iran) spread fake videos. Last year, a rumor that Iran had sentenced fifteen thousand protesters to death spread across the world. It was false. 

Nothing, so far, has been able to stop people from sharing information in the simplest way possible: talking. If you walk down the street of any Iranian city at 9pm, you might hear the words “death to the dictator” echoing from the windows. It is often followed by a different call, often delivered in verse, with a message like “My dear neighbor, we have an appointment tomorrow in the central square of the neighborhood at six o’clock.” And so the protests can continue from the windows. 

Fariba Pajooh is originally from Iran, with over 15 years of reporting experience across the globe. Her focus was on Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.