Editors' Note: It's difficult, day to day, to tell where Iran stands on the war on terror, the creation of an anti-Taliban government in Afghanistan and its attitude towards the United States. In an effort to clarify the complex environment of Iranian politics and journalism, OJR asked Dr. Mahasti Afshar, who was born in Tehran and educated at Harvard, to survey that country's print, broadcast and online outlets. Warning: Many of the links she provides are to Farsi language sites. In an effort to explain the editorial practices of some of the sites, she also submitted a 'Guide to Online News in Iran.'
It was November 6 and Ahmad Masjed-Jamei the Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance was addressing the Conference of Information Ministers of Islamic states in Tehran. He called on Islamic states 'to form a modern media network to support a free and impartial flow of information that would honor Islamic values, and attract the audience's trust by respecting their thoughts and their right to know what is going on.'
A day later, the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, chaired by President Khatami, announced that information technology was to become a state monopoly. Satellite TV dishes, banned since 1995 but widely used, were to be confiscated, while Internet caf�s, and the more than 1,000 existing ISP's had six months to dismantle their equipment and hand them over to the state.
On Nov. 9, President Khatami addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York, fervently promoting a 'Dialogue among Civilizations.'
Is it just me or is there more than a slight difference between information and propaganda, between respecting the public's right to know and information monopoly, between ershad (Islamic 'guidance') and impartiality, between a monologue and a dialogue?
Luckily, that's not the end of the story: The Council's decision has triggered serious doubts in the public mind and reformist lawmakers have actively disputed the legality of the decision, saying that the authority to pass such a law rests with the Parliament.
Iranian media outlets are extremely politicized, especially those based in Iran. In terms of political tendencies, they can be grouped as: (a) hardliners; (b) reformists/loyal opposition; (c) banned opposition in Iran; (d) outlawed opposition abroad; and finally, (e) international/foreign press with a focus on Iran.
Editorials and projections often substitute for news. Partisanship is pervasive, and serious dissent is not tolerated. Iranians therefore tend to turn to foreign radios and word of mouth, and where available, satellite TV and the Internet for news.
It is hard to capture the essence of online news on the Internet, both for the abundance and the living character of the information. In the case of Iran, the Internet is certainly the most refreshing, atypical, and promising phenomenon to have hit the population.
The voice of young people is always fresh and free, and online it can be heard in many Internet chatrooms. Among these are Payvand, with its lively forum and ongoing campaign for freedom of the press in Iran. Another is the possibly-London-based PostIran; here one person posted a 12-page article called: 'Bin Laden, Iran, and the KLA: How Islamic Terrorism Took Root in Albania'. In Tehran, the Amir Kabir Technical University's online news covers a range of dissenting topics, some unusually bold. In a November 9 letter to the chancellor, for instance, the students strongly protested a university event involving the mistreatment of the American flag, arguing that the flag should be respected as a 'symbol of a country's identity and national unity.'
The print publications are useful for understanding internal postures, politics, and personalities, however, especially in the fundamentalist-reformist debate.
But the September 11 terrorist attacks and the war on terrorism have increasingly upstaged domestic issues as front page news. The unexpected capture of Kabul, in particular, caught the media off balance: Should they celebrate the impending fall of the Taliban, or continue to denounce the US-UK coalition by mourning the loss of innocent lives?
A look at the conservative daily, Kayhan's front page on November 14, illustrates the fundamentalist agenda. An article titled: 'Molla Omar Flees To Pakistan: Afghanistan One Day After The Fall Of The Taliban' offers a straightforward report from the frontline. But 'Iran Welcomes Northern Alliance Victories' refers to an official statement by the Foreign Minister hailing the victories without any reference to the U.S. or the coalition. It also expresses hope that until the establishment of a provisional government, the United Islamic Front 'will respect the rights of all citizens, show Islamic compassion, offer general amnesty, and respect all international laws.'
As for Iran's place in the world, another headline quotes Khatami on his return from New York: 'The World's Political Climate Is Influenced By Iran's Ideas.' Another blatant contradiction to Khatami's ambition reported only two days before states: 'The Supreme Leader's strong and unswerving speeches in Isfahan were an unequivocal response to those who covet a dialogue and a relationship with the murderous US.'
The Israeli-Arab conflict continues to occupy the front pages of newspapers. Citing the Iranian Foreign Minister at the Asia Society in New York, Kayhan's headline on November 14 read: 'Terrorism Isn't Confined to the Taliban; Zionists, Too, Commit Terrorism Openly.' And finally, quoting Ayatollah Shahroudi, a staunch Khamenei ally, the headline reads: 'People's Complaints Against The US Shall Be Investigated.' It's an obscure reference, but it keeps the Chief Justice on the front page.
One domestic issue that makes it to the front page is the ongoing debate about freedom of the press and the loss of readership since last year's clampdowns. Kayhan's verdict: 'It Is Politicized Media That Have Alienated Readers'.
Media reporting of Khatami's trip to the U.S. highlights the country's -- and the media's -- general ambiguity about the hot issues of the day. On November 11, Resalat, a morning paper with strong support among the traditional bazaar merchants and associated clerics, quotes Khatami as having said: 'We Will Not Enter Into A Dialogue With The US,' which is similar to Kayhan's: 'No Dialogue While The US Continues to Accuse Us.'
On November 14, Resalat's outsized headline is about 'terrified' New Yorkers and the unresolved crash of the American Airlines Flight 587 flight in Queens, New York. In smaller print below, 'The Foreign Minister Explains Iran's Position Vis-�-vis The Taliban And Terrorism'. Kharrazi is unequivocally clear. The future government of Afghanistan shall represent 'ethnic diversity, democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, international relations, international laws, peaceful relations with other countries, and it shall ban the production and export of drugs and terrorism.' But of course Kharrazi's discussions with the U.N. Security Council are hardly a recipe for internal consumption. That is left to Khamenei to handle with: 'Bankrupt Liberal Ideas Have Targeted Our Society'.
The Reformist press, such as Aftab-e Yazd, Hambastegi, Hayat-e No, and others, tends to be less self-contradictory, more critical about censorship, less anti-American, and generally more concerned with internal affairs.
Outside of Iran, some periodicals are particularly worth reading, not so much for news as for their analyses and visions for the future. An example is Nimrooz's recent article by a former statesman, Daryoush Homayoun, who has a secular, centrist perspective focused on economic development. On a totally different level, those who know the language well may find Hadi Khorsandi and other satirists instructive, shrewd, and sometimes really hilarious.