There are big differences between what the laws prescribe in theory and the way they are enforced in practice, and almost always to the detriment of the freedom of expression.
According to Article 34 of the Press Law, trials for press violations must take place in front of an open court and in the presence of a jury. But reality is very different. The jury is normally absent and most of the cases referred to a revolutionary court see the defendant arrested and kept in solitary confinement for long months without a formal incrimination and legal assistance, before being tried behind closed doors and with very limited assistance by a lawyer.
Repressive initiatives against journalists are often initiated also outside the normal legal procedures involving the Press Supervisory Board. In recent years, especially after the agreement between Iran and the countries of the group ‘5 plus 1’ on the nuclear program in 2015, hardliners in the judiciary and the Intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guards have conducted a campaign against what they consider a supposed infiltration of Western influence in the country, arresting a number of journalists. Among them was Isa Saharkhiz, the reformist former head of the Press Department in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance under President Khatami. Arrested in November 2015 with other three reformist journalists, Saharkhiz has been sentenced in August 2016 by the revolutionary court of Tehran to three years in jail for ‘insulting the Supreme Leader’ and ‘propaganda against the State.’ Saharkhiz had contributed to the opposition news website Rouz Online, but the authorities have not clarified publicly what activity led to his arrest and to the verdict. Saharkhiz had already been imprisoned from 2009 to 2013 for the same accusations.
The Supreme National Security Council issues directions to the newspapers about the line they have to follow. According to Freedom House, in 2015 the Council issued guidelines to newspapers ordering them to refrain from criticizing the accord on the nuclear program. “Authorities took action against several conservative publications that had criticised the nuclear deal, including the weekly 9 Dey, which was suspended”. In 2014, it was the judiciary that issued a warning to the press to refrain from reporting on a series of acid attacks against young women in the city of Isfahan. Many Iranians are convinced that such aggressions were made by conservative Islamist vigilantes that wanted to punish not properly veiled women. Four journalists and a photographer of ISNA news agency were arrested for covering street protests against these episodes.
The confusion that reigns in the enforcement of the laws is demonstrated also by the regulations concerning Facebook and Twitter, that are banned but at the same time are used by many officials - including the Supreme Leader, the president and the foreign minister - to post messages directed to Iranians. This is another example of the uncertainty that characterises the accountability system and that helps the enforcement of censorship and an acceptance of self-censorship by many journalists in the print press and in Internet.