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Iran and the News: A tradition that started during the Qajar Era

The quest for freedom of speech and in turn for freedom of the Press in Iran started more
than a century ago when Iran was still known as Persia. The authoritarian regime of the
Qajar monarch Naser al-Din Shah and the precarious political situation of the state at that
time, threatened both by outside predatory forces including the British Empire and Russia,
and Iran’s natural foe the Ottoman Empire, and by internal dissent of the elite court plotters
and more important by the growing Babi movement, prohibited the expansion of such
freedoms until the start of the constitutional movement. A few ‘news papers’ or ‘feuilles de
choux’ as they are referred to in French were published in exile, in Istanbul or within the
British Empire with the tacit approval of their host powers following their own political
agendas and were mostly intended for the Iranian political elite. The revolution of 1906 saw
the emergence of a number of newspapers expressing the political tendencies of the time
but by the end of World War I, censorship increased and by the time Reza Maxim with the
help of the British government, overthrew the constitutional monarchy and proclaimed
himself the new king of Persia, the Press was once again muzzled.

During the reign of the first Pahlavi, the national press was a government propaganda tool
with low readership, but during World War II and after the British opted for the forced
abdication of Reza Shah, the foreign press, itself in full expansion due to the war effort
needs and propaganda of both the Axis countries and the Allies, started to find a renewed
interest in covering events in the Middle East and specially its star oil-rich country, Iran. In
the aftermath of the war, newspapers representing nearly all political and national identity
of different Iranian factions, flourished in relative freedom. Freedom is a relative term here,
because many of these publications were financed by entities with differing financing
means and their ‘freedom’ to spread their version of the news and their ideology was by no
means on equal footings.

The populist coup of Dr. Mossadegh and the immediately following counter-coup of the
CIA that brought the young Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi back to power, changed all
that. During the ensuing 25 year dictatorship of the second Pahlavi, the national press in
Iran mirrored its political parties. Iran’s official political system comprised two main
parties. And the joke discretely circulating among a nation very found of jokes, was that
one of the political parties was the ‘Yes Sir’ party and the other was the ‘Yes’ party. Iran’s
national press empires also basically numbered two. One was headed by a savvy business
man, Mr. Mesbazadeh, who held the reins of the Keyhan ‘Yes Sir’ group and the other was
the personal empire of a slightly more intellectually inclined gentleman, Mr. Massoudi, who
directed the Etela’at ‘Yes’ group. Usually to get significant and uncensored information on
Iran, mostly political, one had to read the foreign press, often censured but loosely allowed,
especially through the large number of returning travelers and the Iranian foreign student
body studying in the West.

The repressive state apparatus in Iran, embodied by its secret police or SAVAK, was as
frightening and often with terrible consequences for those caught in their nets as that of any
other repressive regime. But in general and in fairness, the SAVAK’s perceived arch-
enemies were people of communist affinities and leftist tendencies. The fear of Iran’s
northern communist neighbor, the defunct Soviet Union, was both the catalyst and the
excuse for an unrelenting and unforgiving repression. The soft opposition, reform-minded
or democrats in Iran were harassed, even imprisoned but also often tolerated. This state of
things provided a de facto status quo between His Majesty and the venerable members of
the foreign press. As long as the subtle indignation of the foreign press correspondents
touched upon the censorship imposed on the soft opposition, they were allowed some
leeway in their reporting. But reporting on leftist ‘traitors’ was taboo.

Some European press outfits, French or German carefully circumvented this taboo when
the news was too important to go unreported, but these were rare happenings and
provoked the wrath of His Majesty. It wasn’t that the foreign press was unaware of events
in Iran, for beside their correspondents in the country, they also had a number of sources
outside the country, secret or permanent opponents. It’s just that it was not politically or
economically correct to provoke or to make enemies with the Shah of Shahs. In a few
occasions a known journalist or editor of one of the major news outfits would be granted a
tell-all interview with His Majesty in which a few unbecoming questions were ventured and
answered with the usual royal becoming arrogance and contempt. On a day-to-day basis,
being a foreign correspondent in Iran seldom brought incertitude in the path to choose in
order to operate within the status quo safety net, for in addition to their unwilling self-
censure, they were also edited and censured by their own foreign editors and in the case of
the Iranian permanent correspondent of the German DPA, even translated (since as far as I
know, he did not speak German).

Most foreign correspondents in Iran were Iranian citizens. Major news agencies such as
Reuters, AP, AFP or the DPA had permanent correspondents as well as a few major
newspapers. Others, including television networks used the services of these same
correspondents on a temporary basis or they would dispatch a crew if necessary. Out of the
major western countries’ press permanent correspondents only one was French, at times a
British, perhaps others but all in all the foreign press corps was a very exclusive club. The
Iranian citizens had some clear advantages. They spoke the language, they had connections,
and they could travel and work their way around more easily. Among the various social
groups, they mostly mixed with the Foreign Affairs crowd that included both ambassadors
and spies, and some local journalists, enjoying a mutually beneficial relation both in social
terms and in professional terms, trading both earthly pleasures and news, sometimes
unclear about which was which. His Majesty had never been quite convinced on the
usefulness of Iran’s foreign press corps. He didn’t trust them and he expected them to
report on the great achievements of his developing oil-rich country. But little was written
about those unless the Shah of Shahs or his wife, the Shahbanou were present at an
inauguration event, the opposition to the regime, the lives of our Persian royalty and the
influencing decisions regarding the oil industry were the main subjects of interest.

The long time Prime Minister, Amir Abbas Hoveida, a charming man of great culture, had
his own exclusive parallel court who on Wednesday, convened at the house of his mother to
relax and enjoy the tolerated parallel stature. A couple of journalists who treasured a special
relationship with the Prime Minister, mingled among an occasional member of his cabinet,
sometimes a lucky businessman and other influential people, mostly family members and
friends. For the others, dinners at foreign embassies or at the homes of members of the
Iranian Foreign Affairs corps were most important to gather bits and pieces of news or to
report what they had gathered elsewhere. The bargaining of information going on at the
nightly dinners suited everyone. Ghotbi, the gracious cousin of the Shahbanou and head of
the National Iranian Radio and Television was also a very valuable and reliable source of
information and of course all journalists had ‘special’ relations among the military, in
different ministries and even among the opposition. But essential information always
carried more weight when confirmed by the Prime Minister or a member of his cabinet.
These sources were rarely available to non-Iranian foreign correspondents. But overall, their
job was not so much to provide in-depth reporting or even understanding, as it was to
provide short but regular pieces of news in line with the country’s importance on the
international scene. So reporting on His Majesty alone was often sufficient. But when that
mission was overstepped, the punishment was a harsh one. Loyal friends would turn their
back on you and return to become loyal servants, travel and other forms of foreign
communications would be forbidden and in the extreme you could end up a distinguished
guest of the state’s prisons in the capable hands of the SAVAK.

A few courageous and insightful books written in exile or published abroad in the tradition
of Soviet dissidents often provided the rare in-depth outlook on the social and political
situation of the country. But no-one and no piece of foreign published literature provided
the foreign analyst or reader, any hint of what was to befall on His Majesty’s tightly
controlled Iran in 1978. Many foresaw a great liberalization but nobody imagined the
Islamic Revolution (I dare say even those who had dreamt it or most knowledgeable writer
in the west such as Paul Vieille of the French ‘Le Monde’ or Marvin Zonis)
No-one was to blame for this lack of foresight, the Pahlavi years were at the very least so
suffocating for opponents, peasants, city dwellers, faithful and laymen alike, that most
everyone had if a brief feeling of relief when the revolution started even in the fear of the
unknown. Only two entities had the structure and the organization to sustain the
revolutionary state. But the clergy had the numbers, the experience and the trust of the
population, and they assumed control.

If Iran was looked upon as a Middle Eastern dictatorship, no matter what the Shah of Shahs
claimed in public or to his public, after the 1979 revolution, Iran became the pariah state,
retrograde and no less of a dictatorship. The press was affected in the same way. Soon after
a short period of revolutionary fervor when all participants were allowed free expression
while the clergy consolidated its power over all areas of the society, the former imperial
censure became a total religious control over all forms of expression.
With the advent of the Iraqi invasion of Iran, the control and the repression became even
tighter. Iran was a country in war and a shroud of secrecy hovered above it. The press was
relegated to a propaganda tool once again. The foreign press representing hostile nations of
the west was not welcome either. And nearly everyone not involved actively with the
regime was a potential suspect. Suspect of being an anti-revolutionary at best, but also
perhaps of being a spy or a traitor.

At the effective end of the war, the hordes of returning hardened but unemployed war
veterans and the uncertainty created by the political vacuum after the death of Ayatollah
Khomeini warranted some opening in the society battered, mostly humiliated, exhausted by
the hundreds of thousands of dead and injured, and by the lack of food and other basic
necessities. Still under strict guidelines, licenses were issued and publications started to
appear. Not unlike the preceding imperial era, the relationship between the state and these
publications was that of a cat and mouse game. News publishers would push their luck
until they were censured or closed down, but in time coded words and styles allowed
people to read between the lines and writers to express themselves. It was also a period that
saw the start of the mostly illegal proliferation of satellite dishes which since then, provide
many in Iran with a window on the changes occurring in the West, and the new world
trend embodied by the Globalization phenomena. After 1997, with the election of the
reformist president Khatami, an inherent feeling of freedom swept the nation and many
more publishing licenses were granted. Writers and artists grew bolder and the country
opened up to more foreign press. But for a foreign correspondent to base him or herself in
Iran is still a very arduous task, with often a long list of seemingly insurmountable obstacles
such as government permits, willingness and availability of primary sources and mostly
limited freedom of movement and expression, and most like Delphine Minoui of Le Figaro
were Iranians, but some like the BBC or the AP, employ foreigners. Others would come for
short stays. In general, they are few and their reporting seldom drifts apart from the
guidelines established by the authorities, preferring to report about social issues instead of
sensitive political or military issues.

During these years a number of former Iran experts and former members of the Pahlavi
regime turned experts wrote books focusing mainly on the analysis of that regime and on
trying to explain its demise. Although these have a definite entertaining and historical
value, it is often difficult to set aside the biographical and anecdotic or subjective parts from
the less opinionated portions of this post Pahlavi literature. Some authors, more academic,
brought real insight to our understanding of the socio-political atmosphere and the events
in Iran. These stand out for their professionalism, people such as Roy Mottahedeh and
Professor Milani as well as the outstanding work by Habib Ladjevardi with his lengthy
interviews of 134 former grandees of the Iranian regime. Other scholars also contributed
very valuable analysis both on the revolution and on the resurgence of Islam: Said
Arjomand, Nikki Keddie, Hamid Algar, E. Abrahamian, Vali Nasr and many others. And
even though some newspaper people of the previous generation such as Robin Wright still
honor Iranians by studying and writing about Iran, a newer generation of talented, well
spoken experts have already made a great impression by appearing in television programs,
people such as Reza Aslan and Hooman Majd.

The election of Ahmadinejad as the president did not officially change the situation of the
press much, but in effect, increased censure, harassment, and an overall sense of renewed
tensions and fear installed itself within the press and other intellectuals, now determinedly
defiant. The relationship of the new government with the foreign press has also become
more unreliable and although major outfits such as BBC and CNN try to keep a permanent
presence in Iran, if the government deems some of your reporting ‘unfair’ or ‘untrue’, they
purely and simply expel the foreign staff and they close the news bureau’s offices including
in the case of the young Arabic networks present in Iran. Recently, the government of Iran
also established its own brand of around-the-clock News Network in English freely
available to internet users and obviously competing with both BBC’s newly created Persian
TV and to a lesser extent with the very professional Al Jazeera English News channel.

Reporting from Iran is a necessity but how effective have traditional media been or been
willing to be, in the context of a controlled country and society such as Iran’s. Up to a few
years ago we witnessed little effectiveness, although some valuable information was
smuggled out by opposition groups, notably by the much nationally hated Mojahedin–e-
Khalgh group (MEK) whose well organized communications network divulged the extent of
Iran’s nuclear program to the west in 2002. Some information of varying current
importance was also provided by various dissidents, former members of Iran’s
Revolutionary Guards Corps and disgraced members of the government, but often the
information was more valued as intelligence than traditional news. As far as the
mainstream media also present on the Internet, CNN, BBCNews, and the New York Times
offer a commendable selection of both written news and videos, Time magazine also
publishes some interesting articles, but the British Guardian dedicates timely and good
coverage of all main events regarding Iran and the Huffington Post, the popular online
publication has also dedicated all the necessary resources for a supportive coverage of
events in Iran.

What has changed the news business during Ahmadinejad’s first term is technology. The
popularization of blogs such as WordPress and Blogspot, then Facebook and social
networks and finally twitter and global messaging has opened a new era in the gathering of
news from countries like Iran. Young student bloggers, activists, intellectuals and political
opponents have effectively used the Internet and its related technologies to its fullest. Blogs
propped up everywhere and during the recent 2009 election protests twitter set records in
user activity, while Iranians and concerned Foreigners connected daily and directly through
Facebook. People found numerous virtual and often faceless friends to discuss with,
comment and share a constant stream of virtual news and images from a real uprising of
real protestors who endured real casualties along with real hope and real suffering. The
interaction was far more emotional than Live TV. Beyond its emotional value, this type of
medium has significant drawbacks. By being little or un-moderated, uncoordinated, and
unverified, the postings also generate a tremendous amount of provocation and hate-laden
comments, purposeful or self-serving misinformation, and just unnecessary and immature
display of support or disagreement from people at large. As the protests went on, the
repression grew tougher, and as the determination hardened, the revolt was stifled, but the
opposition movement and its supporters live on through the untouchables active on the
Internet. Over time by spending many hours of reading and selecting the useful sites or by
reading what others have selected, you end up with a few manageable and ordered choices
that possibly quench your thirst for timely and meaningful information.

In this exercise, to each his own. But, I am quite impressed by a few real talents out there.
During the protests in June, everyone looked to the reliable tweets of a twitter supposedly in
Iran who has unfortunately disappeared since. After the crackdown in late June, some blogs
have provided more reliable news and some even have the appearance of online
newspapers with multiple contributors, not all of equal value.

It is hard not to fall in love with Iran and its people for their inherent kindness, hospitality,
sense of existence and history, albeit their pretension to endorse most major and early
accomplishments of civilization may be irritating at times, and a majority of foreigners or
Iranians in exile who have had the good fortune of entering into a relationship with Iran
have kept a dear affection and lifelong memories for the country, its people and its culture.

Growing up, I was often reminded of two Iranian traditions. The first one was our very
Iranian ‘ruling tradition’ or royal ‘Xvarnah’. In modern Persian the tradition is referred to as
‘Farr’. The ancient concept has been used and misused over time, but in its basic non
theological form it refers to the divine legitimacy of ruling elites in Iran since Achaemenid
times. It states that a divine light or glory shines over those meant to rule the ancient
kingdom and that although the Xvarnah is usually reserved to those descendants of former
rulers or members of former ruling families, albeit in hiding for long period of times, it can
also be attained through conquest and significant military victories. As such ruling
legitimacy in Iran could only be bestowed to divinely recognized members of former ruling
dynasties or to those who would conquer Iran guided by divine glory.

The second tradition also very Iranian in spirit is that of ‘Taqiyeh’. Although essentially
applied to the shia framework in Islam, it was also a common notion among the historical
political elite in Iran. It has benefited many during the Pahlavi era but also especially in the
current political elite, including people such as Ayatollah Rafsandjani or Ali Larijani.

One evening, after having made some cold cucumber and yoghourt soup (Ab Dough Khiar)
for a friend, she said that it was good, but that it was hard to brand it a soup in the tradition
of refined cuisines, being just a mixture of yoghurt, cucumbers and raisins. On another
occasion a former Director of Shell Oil who had spent extended time in the Middle East said
of Iranians: I don’t trust them, these people are troublemakers and they lie all the time.
Effectively, from afar, short-sighted people may summarize the lot of Iranians, as a bunch
of delusional people who lie all the time. They would be much mistaken for they must
regard Iranians as a hopeful nation, proud, with the will to survive at all times.