The situation of the media in Iran reflects, to a certain extent, the contradictions of the complex political life and institutional architecture of the Islamic Republic. The absolute authority of the Supreme Leader, at present ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lives together with elective offices and bodies, such as the President of the Republic - that is also the head of the government - and the parliament. Candidates to such elective positions have to nevertheless go through a vetting process where the main role is played by the Guardian Council, one of the many centers of power directly or indirectly controlled by the Leader himself.

The media are heavily censored and journalists and bloggers face a very high risk of imprisonment for their activity. Iran is at the 165th place in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders in 2017 out of a total of 180 countries. "Iran continues to be one of the world’s five biggest prisons for media personnel", says the organisation. All TV and radio stations broadcasting from the country are in the hands of the regime, the control on the activity of the press is very strict and dozens of publications, most of them reformists, have been suppressed over the years. But at the same time new dailies and magazines from the same side of the political spectrum have been created, often replacing with part of the same staff the ones that had been closed. Within the 'red lines' that nobody is allowed to cross - opposition to the system of the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader and Islam (according to the interpretation given by the system itself) - the political debate in the press may be surprisingly lively and open and criticism of public figures, including members of the government and of the parliament, is not uncommon. But the boundaries imposed by the law in such cases are uncertain, and allow authorities to intervene with severe measures at their will in case of reporting about sensitive issues.

Other contradictions concern the access to some basic instruments of information. The State has monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting, as stated by article 44 of the Constitution. This activity is managed by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), whose Director General is appointed by the Supreme Leader. But millions of Iranians follow also the programs of foreign-based stations, illegally using TV dishes. Many websites and social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, are blocked by the authorities, but are used by millions more citizens, including activists and dissidents, that access the banned sites through anti-filter systems. Also the most important officials have profiles on Facebook and Twitter.

Media have always had a fundamental role in Iranian politics, and their fortunes have coincided with those of the political awakenings that have characterised Iranian history since the beginning of the twentieth century. That is since the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911) that saw secular and Marxist groups join forces with part of the Shiite clergy and the merchants of the Bazaar to limit the powers of the Qajar dynasty. It was in those years that Iranians started to use new words like demokrasi (democracy), sosialism (socialism) and jomhouri (republic), while 90 newspapers were founded and became the voices of a free political debate. The names of some of them were particularly meaningful: Asr-e Now (The New Era), Esteqlal (Independence) and Eqbal (Progress). A similar flourishing of publications happened in the years after World War Two and continued up to the new wave of nationalism that brought with it the nationalisation of the oil industry by the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1951. Iran had arrived to having 300 newspapers, 25 of them dailies, before the coup d’etat supported by the United States and Great Britain that overthrew the government of Mossadeq in 1953.

The following repression, especially in the years after the first attempted insurrection by the Islamic movement of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini in 1963, drastically reduced the press activity. In 1978, at the wake of the revolution, the number of the newspapers had gone down to 100, 23 of which were dailies, in spite of the fact that the population had doubled to 35 million and the literacy rate had increased five times, to over 50 percent. The control of the government over the press had become asphyxiating, to the point that it was an article published on the order of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, by one of the major newspapers at the time, Ettela’at (Information), that provoked the first spark of the big fire. The story, containing false accusations against Ayatollah Khomeini, at the time in exile in Iraq, led to a demonstration against the monarchy in the Shiite holy city of Qom in January 1978. It was the first episode of a movement of protests that in a few months was to engage the whole country in a chain reaction snowball effect.

The fall of the monarchy, in February 1979, marked the beginning of a short season of freedom on the political scene and the press and saw the number of publications reaching 700. But this ‘Spring of Freedom’ didn’t last long. The Khomeinists, helped also by the emergency situation provoked by the war with Iraq that started in September 1980, soon took full control of power.

Many newspapers were closed, among them those linked to the Marxist and secular factions that had taken part in the revolution but were against the instauration of a clerical system of power. From that time on, the newspapers published in the country are expressions of different factions, but only within the limits and the ‘red lines’ of the Islamic Republic.

The power of the Supreme Leader - first Khomeini and now Khamenei - who has the final word on all matters regarding the State, reduces the powers of the government and the parliament as well as the media. In 2000 Khamenei forbade the reformists-dominated parliament to consider a new press bill meant to introduce more liberal rules, describing it as a threat to national security. The Leader controls also other centers of power that can prevent the government to implement policies. The result is that the presence of a reformist or moderate president does not guarantee more freedom for the press. It is true, for example, that during the first years of the government of the reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the country, and with it the media, lived a new season of relative freedom. Hundreds of new publications were licensed and the total circulation increased from 1.5m to 2.9m copies. People were standing in line in front of newsstands in the morning, waiting to see how far the newspapers would push in challenging the system. A symbolic figure of journalism of those days is Akbar Ganji, who on the newspaper Sobh-e Emrouz (Today’s Morning) published a series of articles accusing ministers of the previous governments of the killings of dozens of dissident writers and activists. But it was also during the presidency of Khatami that the judiciary started a crackdown on the media that led to the closure of dozens of them, after a speech by Khamenei in April 2000 in which the Supreme Leader had accused part of the press of having become “the base of the enemy.” Among the many journalists that were arrested there was Ganji, who was sentenced to six years in jail. The publisher of Sobh-e Emrouz, Said Hajjarian, a close ally of President Khatami, was shot in the head in full daylight in the center of Tehran, and as a consequence of his injuries remained semi-paralyzed.

The pressure on reformist newspapers, accompanied by the suspension of public funding for some of them, continued in the eight years of the ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani, in 2013, only some restrictions have been loosened, with the reopening of part of these publications. But according to the reports of the United Nations on the situation of human rights in Iran, his administration has not yet been able to bring about a significant improvement in freedom of expression. This is in spite of the efforts for a reduction of the press restrictions advocated by the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati, before resigning his post in 2015. According to a report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights, Ahmed Shaheed, submitted in September 2016, “at least 14 journalists and 15 bloggers and social media activists were reportedly either in detention or sentenced for their peaceful activities as of July 2016, and reports suggest that many others are subjected to interrogations, surveillance and other forms of harassment and intimidation.”

With the newspapers used as catalysts and voices of the main factions, the journalists that work in the printed media often find themselves in the role of political activists. But the same happens in the news agencies, whose number has had an exponential growth in the last 15-20 years, since the different groups inside the system have resorted also to this kind of tools for their propaganda.