Article 24 of the Iranian Constitution states that “publications and the press are free to discuss issues unless such is deemed harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” But there is no clear definition of what is ‘harmful.’ This vagueness, together with the overlapping of jurisdiction of different authorities, contributes to an uncertainty in the application of the law that favors arbitrariness, censorship and repression.
It is interesting to note how the Press Law, ratified in 1986 and amended in 2000, defines not only the limitations of journalism as a profession, but also the duties of journalists in pursuing the “mission of the press.” Among these duties are “to campaign against manifestations of imperialistic culture (such as extravagance, dissipation, debauchery, love of luxury, spread of morally corrupt practices, etc) and to propagate and promote genuine Islamic culture and sound ethical principles.”. Article 6 sets the ‘red lines’ of the activity of journalists, stating that the media are “permitted to publish news items except in cases when they violate Islamic principles and codes and public rights.” For example by “publishing atheistic articles”, “propagating obscene and religiously forbidden acts”, “propagating luxury and extravagance”, “creating discord between and among social walks of life”, “encouraging and instigating individuals and groups to act against the security, dignity and interest of the Islamic Republic of Iran” or “insulting Islam and its sanctities.” All violations not better specified that can lead to trials of journalists in front of public or revolutionary courts based on articles of the Penal Code that prescribes heavy sentences. Among the most common allegations raised against the defendants are “propaganda against the State” (article 500), that prescribes a sentence up to one year in prison, and “insulting the founder of Islamic Republic of Iran or the Supreme Leader” (article 514), that can be punished with imprisonment up to two years. Article 513 says that those guilty of “insults to the Islamic sanctities” are sentenced to death. Article 698 prescribes imprisonment up to two years or 74 lashes for those found guilty of “disturbing public opinion.” In the most recent flogging case recorded by Amnesty International, a journalist was lashed 40 times in Najaf Abad, in the province of Isfahan, on January 5th 2017, “after a court found him guilty of inaccurately reporting the number of motorcycles confiscated by police in the city.” According to then United Nations rapporteur on human rights, Ahmed Shaheed, the blogger journalist Mohammad Reza Fathi, from the town of Saveh, in the North of the country, was sentenced to 444 lashes in June 2016 having been convicted of “publishing lies” and “disturbing public opinion” after three individuals who worked for local government bodies filed complaints against his critical writings. The execution of the sentence is pending a final ruling from the court of appeal.
The same limitations apply to online journalism. Blogs and websites are considered as publications and must register at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance following the same procedures as newspapers. Most of their owners, however, prefer not to do so, fearing the controls they should go through by security authorities. But the activity of news sites and blogs is regulated also by the Computer Crime Law (CCL) enforced in 2009. This law includes also punishments for spying, hacking, piracy, phishing, libel and publishing materials deemed to damage “public morality” or “dissemination of lies.” The CCL has made Internet Service Providers responsible for any content that appears on their sites and therefore they have to block the sites identified as carrying forbidden content by the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorised Websites, that is headed by the prosecutor general.
The authorities block tens of thousands of blogs and websites, a measure that doesn’t target only the reformist movement or dissident organisations, but also regularly registered sites linked to conservative or even government officials. In a report on the ‘Freedom on the Net’ in Iran, the NGO Freedom House says that in May 2011 the website of Haft-e Sobh, a group close to President Ahmadinejad, was blocked and the website of the Friday Prayer leader of the city of Kashan was taken offline after he revealed details about a conflict between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. In December of that year also the website of former President Rafsanjani, head of Expediency Discernment Council and one of the most influential clerics in the country, was blocked and temporarily shut down.