The Islamic Republic of Iran (population approx. 67,500,000 in 2004; adult literacy rate 77.1 percent) was established as a result of Iran’s revolution in 1979. The political system blends republican elements (i.e., regular parliamentary and presidential elections) with the idea of the “government of the Islamic jurist” (velayat-e faqih), developed during the 1960s and 1970s by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution and the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Most political power thus lies in the hands of a Shiite cleric, the “Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution” (rahbar-e moazam-e enqelab-e eslami).
The history of Iran’s press is determined by successive phases of authoritarian rule and rare episodes of political liberalization. The first newspaper was published in 1837 under the Qajar dynasty. At the advent of the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, exile and clandestine periodicals gained considerable importance for the dissemination of modern political ideas. The subsequent years witnessed a flourishing of publications that ended when Reza Shah took power in 1925. The central state authority weakened again in 1942 – 1953, providing room for a dynamic and politicized press. The reinstated monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah subjected the press once more to limitations.
Radio was introduced in 1940 by the government following experimentations with wireless transmissions throughout the 1920s. The first television channel opened in 1958 on the initiative of a private entrepreneur. Its merger with a second stateowned station in 1971 created the National Iranian Radio and Television organization. By the mid-1970s, Iran had developed the second biggest broadcasting system in Asia after Japan, reaching more than half the total population.
In the Islamic Republic, the constitution grants freedom for the mass media within the framework of religious principles. The constitution further stipulates the media’s educational mission for the propagation of Islamic culture. The press law requires all publications to be licensed and prohibits articles violating the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic or offending religious authorities. The principal institutions that shape culture and media politics are the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution.
Ideological restrictions on the media were especially severe during the Iran–Iraq war between 1980 and 1988. From the mid-1990s on, a relaxation of governmental politics allowed for a growing number of press publications to express alternative views. However, the press became the target of a judicial campaign backed by conservative factions, leading to the closure of over 100 publications from 2000 to 2006.
The majority of the press as well as radio and television are based in Tehran. Newspapers are comparatively cheap due to governmental subsidies for paper and advertisement. About 1,700 periodicals were published in 2005, including 136 dailies and more than 700 specialist publications. The main news agency is the governmental Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
The current national radio and television organization, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), has been under the direct control of the Supreme Leader since the revision of the constitution in 1989. The organization is funded by the state, though advertisement constitutes a growing share in its budget. IRIB has considerably expanded its structure and programming since 1994. A major factor in the rise of entertainment and foreign content in the programs was the attempt to counter the increasing influence of satellite television, perceived as a cultural onslaught by the regime.
Radio provided seven national channels in 2006, partly specializing in culture, youth, sports, and religion. IRIB offers extensive regional radio broadcasting and its world service transmits programs in 25 languages. There are two main national TV channels, while a third targets youth, providing sports and films. The fourth channel offers religious and instructive content; the fifth is a regional channel for the capital and other cities; and there are further educational and news channels. IRIB has also launched several satellite organizations. Since 1997, Jam-e Jam has been broadcasting three mainly Farsi channels for the Iranian diaspora. Sahar transmits two channels in different languages (English, Kurdish, and Urdu), and the Arabic Al-’Alam seeks its audience particularly in neighboring Iraq.
Attempts to create private television have failed so far. Receiving foreign satellite television is officially forbidden though currently tolerated. Estimates of the number of Iranian households equipped with satellite dishes go from 3 million to 5 million. Governmental projects to provide centralized access to chosen satellite channels have not yet been realized. About 15 stations broadcasting in Farsi and mainly run by the US-based exile community opposed to the current regime can be received in Iran.
The Internet was introduced in 1992. The estimated number of users increased noticeably between 2000 (200,000) and 2006 (7 million). Access is provided by over 500 ISPs working under the close supervision of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and of the national Telecommunications Company of Iran, owned by the state and working under the control of the ministry. Ambitious state programs seek to enhance Internet accessibility and connection quality. The government concurrently developed a sophisticated system of online censorship, controlling both the content and usage of the Internet, which had become an instrument for expressions of political and cultural discontent.
The evolution of Iran’s media is, therefore, constantly affected by the politics of a strong state. Despite significant cultural assets and a long history of journalism, the country has not yet developed an appropriate and independent media system.
- Barraclough, S. (2001). Satellite television in Iran: Prohibition, imitation and reform. Middle Eastern Studies, 37(3), 25 – 48.
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- Sreberny-Mohammadi, A., & Mohammadi, A. (1993). Communications. In E. Yarshater (ed.), Encyclopaedia Iranica. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda, pp. 89 – 95.