Iran has never been called the beacon of democratic hope in the world. While there are a litany of indicators that can help determine the extent of a country’s freedom, freedom of the press one that is particularly helpful in assessing the liberty, or lack thereof, of a population. This particular indicator is particularly grim in the case of Iran. Iran has an infamous reputation for suppressing critical voices in the press, jailing journalists and even torturing critics. However, with the recent election of new President Hassan Rouhani, hope looms on the horizon for would be Iranian voices in the press.
A recent article published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) posted some staggering figures, quantifying the danger for Iranian journalists. According to CPJ, Iran is second only to Turkey in the number of journalists currently in prison with 40 currently behind bars. The most unfortunate aspect of this figure is that it is an improvement. The number of 40 imprisoned Iranian journalists is down from its peak of 52 incarcerated journalists in 2010.
Yet, the bravery of Iranian journalists becomes much more impressive when the full scope of Iran’s crackdown on the press is examined. According to Freedom House, in the club of the eight most press-repressive countries — of which Iran is a member — “dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture and other forms of repression.” Reporters Without Borders has recently ranked Iran 174 out of 179 countries in its 2013 Press Freedom Index. This index highlights the uniqueness of Iran’s hostile relationship toward free press in that it “also harasses the relatives of journalists, including the relatives of those who are abroad.” But in spite of the shambles in which the status of Iran’s press freedom finds itself, is there hope now?
The recent democratic election Rouhani, has brought optimism to many issues around the world, including increased freedom of the press. The groundwork for a free Iranian press is already laid. Iran is one of the signatories of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which expressly states that all humans have the right of expression and the right not to be tortured. Further, Chapter 3, Article 24 of the Iranian Constitution states, “Publications and the press have freedom of expression except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” In the past, Iran has lacked the leader to entrench these rhetorical benchmarks in the practice and culture of its society.
It is perhaps too idealistic to assume Rouhani will revolutionize the press in Iran and encourage the free expression of all media voices; however, it is not improper to hope for some small changes that stem the historical tide of outright, aggressive repression of dissenting Iranian voices. One of the main checks on the outside observer’s optimism should be the hierarchical structure in Iran. Rouhani’s administration works separately from the judiciary and legislature, all of whom are under the purview of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In spite of the daunting hierarchy that limits the president’s power, Rouhani may be well positioned to spur the country toward a state of freer press. Beyond his ability to shape the dialogue and influence policy, he appears to be primed to make good on the moderate, reasonable promises of increased freedom that he made during the recent campaign. The Association of Journalists in Iran recently stated that they are optimistic that Rouhani intends to “open the home of journalists so that they can resume their activities in a legal and professional framework.” According to the article, Iran’s Association of Journalists comprised of 6,000 journalists was shut down in 2009 as reporters began covering the Green Revolution and the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani, in his first press conference as president, stated “all guilds should be permitted to work freely” when asked about the Association’s reopening.
While the freedom of press is indeed a hallmark of democratic societies, it is by no means an easily perpetuated principle. Even America’s two and half centuries of “free press” are littered with court battles and egregious violations of freedom. From the Alien and Sedition Acts to McCarthyism, our own nation has struggled with appropriating the democratic essentiality of free press. Yet as difficult as the evolution has been, it is a noble fight for all countries aspiring to emblazon “free press” on their list of contributions to humanity. The freedom to vocally dissent is what makes that freedom sincere. Perhaps put best by the biggest critic of the Alien and Sedition Acts in his first inaugural address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson stated, "If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."