The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the law, “anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”
Article 26 of the 2016 Charter on Citizens’ Rights acknowledges the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression. The charter grants citizens the right freely to seek, receive, publish, and communicate views and information, using any means of communication, but it has not been implemented.
The law provides for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state or national security or “insulting” Islam. The government severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights problems, as well as to bring ordinary citizens into compliance with the government’s moral code.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities did not permit individuals to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions, as well as those who publicly criticized the president, cabinet, and parliament.
The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security and insulting the regime based on letters, emails, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.
Former president Mohamed Khatami remained barred from giving public remarks, and media remained banned from publishing his name or image. According to national and international media reports, the former president was further barred in October from making public appearances for three months, including at meetings, theater performances, and concerts. Activists reportedly said this ban was one of the latest signs of the continuing crackdown within the regime on reformists.
Press and Media Freedom: The government’s Press Supervisory Board issues press licenses, which it sometimes revoked in response to articles critical of the government or the regime, or did not renew for individuals facing criminal charges or incarcerated for political reasons. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (“Ershad”) severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country by requiring foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limiting their ability to travel within the country, and forcing them to work with a local “minder.”
Under the constitution private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through government agency Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens (especially in rural areas with limited internet access), reflected the government’s political and socioreligious ideology. The government jammed satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country, a continuing practice since at least 2003. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes faced fines up to 90 million rials ($2,500). Police launched campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout the country under warrants provided by the judiciary.
Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the audiovisual policy agency, a council composed of representatives of the president, judiciary, and parliament. The Ministry of Culture reviews all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release, and may deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require word substitutions for terms deemed inappropriate.
Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations.
Violence and Harassment: The government and its agents harassed, detained, abused, and prosecuted publishers, editors, and journalists, including those involved in internet-based media, for their reporting. The government also harassed many journalists’ families. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that the government summoned at least 10 families of foreign-based journalists during the year for interviews with intelligence officers to pressure them to “stop collaborating with enemy media.” As in previous election years, there were numerous reports of the government’s widespread crackdown on journalists in the runup to the May presidential and local elections.
In August it was widely reported that the government had frozen the assets of more than 150 BBC Persian service present-day and former staff and contributors, banning them from buying or selling property, cars, or other nonliquid assets.
In September, RSF reported at least 50 Iranian journalists based abroad had been threatened during the year, including at least 16 who received death threats. RSF noted that alleged sources used by international media in the country continued to be targeted and harassed. Mehdi Khazali, editor of the blog Baran, was arrested in Tehran in August for sending “false information about the government to counterrevolutionary websites based abroad and to VOA.”
Reformist journalists Issa Saharkhiz, Ehsan Mazandarani, Afarin Chitsaz, and Saman Safarzai were originally arrested in 2015 on charges of membership in “an infiltration group connected to the United States and United Kingdom.” Saharkhiz was conditionally released from prison in April after having been sentenced to three years in August 2016 for “insulting the supreme leader” and “propagating against the state.” In October, according to an RSF report, Saharkhiz was banned from international travel.
According to the CHRI, the government sentenced Mazandarani, a reporter for reformist daily newspaper Etemad and the former editor of Farhikhtegan, to seven years’ imprisonment in April 2016 for “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state.” The sentence was reduced on appeal to two years in July 2016. On February 11, Mazandarani was released from prison but subsequently detained and returned to Evin Prison in March as part of the government’s crackdown on journalists in the runup to the May elections. RSF reported his release from prison on October 31.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law forbids government censorship but also prohibits dissemination of information the government considers “damaging.” During the year the government censored publications that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees.
Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board, which regulates media content and publication, referred such complaints to the Press Court for further action, including possible closure, suspension, and fines. According to the IHRDC, the Islamic Republic News Agency determined the main topics and types of news to be covered and distributed topics required for reporting directly to various media outlets.
According to RSF, on October 5, the Tehran prosecutor’s office for culture and media suspended Mostaghel (or Independent), a reformist daily newspaper, for publishing a photo of former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, along with photos of other prime ministers from 1979-89. This action was considered a violation of an order by the High Council for National Security and Justice banning media coverage of the leaders of the 2009 protests that followed the disputed presidential election (see section 1.d., Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees).
According to international and local media reports, in the runup to the May presidential election, the country’s state television censored a documentary released by President Rouhani’s campaign that showed supporters chanting for 2009 presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011. A picture of former president Mohammad Khatami, whose name and image have been banned from use in media since 2015, was also cut from the video.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government commonly used libel laws or cited national security to suppress criticism. According to the law, if any publication contains personal insults, libel, false statements, or criticism, the insulted individual has the right to respond in the publication within one month. By law “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they are on Iranian soil, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to reform (but not undermine the government) are considered political crimes and subject to certain trial and detention procedures (see section 1.e.). The government applied the law throughout the year, often citing statements made in various media outlets or internet platforms that criticized the government, to arrest, prosecute, and sentence individuals for crimes against national security.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, monitored private online communications, and censored online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.
The Ministries of Culture and of Information and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems in the country. The supreme leader’s office also includes the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 53 percent of the population used the internet. According to the Ministry of Culture, 70 percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 29 used the internet. NGOs reported the government continued to filter content on the internet to ban access to particular sites and to filter traffic based on its content. The law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, and Minister of Information and Communications Technology Jahromi was quoted in the press in September saying that using circumvention tools is illegal.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all internet service providers. The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that comprise the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (also referred to as the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites or Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content), the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These include the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, Intelligence Ministry, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cyber cafes from having high-speed internet access. The government periodically reduced internet speed to discourage downloading material.
According to media reports, former minister of information and communications technology Mahmoud Vaezi announced that the government had improved methods to control the internet and had shut down a number of online platforms. According to a CHRI report in July, Vaezi vowed to “get rid” of foreign social media and described the government’s efforts to block popular foreign products like WeChat and WhatsApp.
In a June speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei emphasized the importance of the country’s National Information Network (NIN), launched in 2016 to “allow higher speeds and easier access while eliminating threats.” RSF reported that the NIN acts like an intranet system, with full content control and user identification. Authorities may disconnect this network from World Wide Web content and reportedly intended to use it to provide government propaganda, while blocking access to independently reported news or freely gathered information.
Authorities continued to block online messaging tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, although the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other government-associated officials and entities.
During the year the social media platform Telegram was widely used by government officials, activists, media organizations, and citizens, although the government restricted access to some Telegram content. In August the SCC announced new regulations requiring that all foreign social media platforms, like Telegram, move all their data to servers inside the country or risk being closed. Telegram users in the country were harassed throughout the year for content posted through its servers. RSF reported in June that 173,000 Telegram accounts were blocked and 94 internet users, mainly Telegram users, had been arrested since the start of the year. In April, Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri announced that Telegram’s new voice-call option was blocked in the country because “intelligence agencies cannot monitor it.” In March, eight Telegram administrators were arrested, with no reason provided.
Government organizations, including the Basij “Cyber Council,” the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyber threats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government significantly restricted academic freedom and the independence of higher education institutions. Authorities systematically targeted university campuses to suppress social and political activism by prohibiting independent student organizations, imprisoning student activists, removing faculty, preventing students from enrolling or continuing their education because of their political or religious affiliation or activism, and restricting social sciences and humanities curricula.
Authorities barred Bahai students from higher education and harassed those who pursued education through the unrecognized online university of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
The government maintained controls on cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits and censored those productions deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored or banned films deemed to promote secularism, non-Islamic ideas about women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcoholism.
According to the IHRDC, the nine-member film review council of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, made up of clerics, former directors, former parliamentarians, and academics, must approve the content of every film before production and again before screening. Films may be barred arbitrarily from screening even if all the appropriate permits were received in advance.
In January, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Reza Salehi Amiri reportedly boasted about the banning of 10 films from the Tehran Fajr International Film Festival. Amiri was quoted saying that for the first time, films with “feminist and inappropriate themes” had been removed.
Officials continued to discourage teaching music in schools. Authorities considered heavy metal and foreign music religiously offensive, and police continued to repress underground concerts and arrest musicians and music distributors. The Ministry of Culture must officially approve song lyrics, music, and album covers as complying with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission.
Mehdi and Hossein Rajabian and Yousef Emadi were arrested in 2013 and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment following a 15-minute trial by a revolutionary court, which found them guilty of “insulting Islamic sanctities,” “spreading propaganda against the system,” and “illegal audio-visual activities” for the distribution of unlicensed music. Authorities shut down their website, and Amnesty International reported the three were beaten and given electric shocks in detention. In June the Rajabian brothers were released, but in September, according to a CHRI report, a revolutionary court sentenced Emadi to an additional year in prison, plus two years of internal exile, for “propaganda against the state” and his alleged dissemination of information to foreign media while in Evin Prison.