By Roshanak Asteraky
The Islamic Republic has been imposing various restrictions on Iranian society for the past four decades. Many in the regime, including President Hassan Rouhani, claim that they have always opposed censorship and promoted free speech. Rouhani was able to win both the 2013 and the 2017 presidential elections by promising to ease political and social constraints.
Rouhani, who unveiled his version of the “Charter of Citizens’ Rights” during his first term in office, has, however, failed to fulfill his promise of creating an open society and protecting free speech. If anything, he has proven himself to be deeply committed to the oppressive policies of the Iranian establishment. The Media System Organization Bill is a recent example of the government’s attempts to censor and control the flow of information.
The bill, which was proposed by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, calls for the creation of a state-regulated body to monitor the press. It will not protect journalists as it claims to do. In fact, it will impose greater restrictions on the press, and most likely destroy nongovernmental media.
The bill has been widely criticized by many journalists and legal experts, who have highlighted many of its problematic articles. For instance, under the proposed bill, all journalists should be vetted by the Media System Organization. The introduction to the bill reads: “The organization is a non-governmental professional institution with an independent legal status.”
The organization is responsible for:
- Protecting free speech
- Safeguarding professional journalists
- Educating the public
- Guaranteeing the free dissemination of information
- Guaranteeing the rights of readers and audiences
- Supporting the creation of an association of journalists
- Promoting independent journalism
- Providing job security
- Drafting editorial guidelines in line with relevant laws
- Managing the relationship between journalists and public institutions
- Mediating disputes between journalists, their employers or other media outlets
- Issuing, renewing or canceling press permits and licenses
- Drafting and implementing a code of journalistic ethics
- Providing expert views to policy-making centers
- Establishing links between journalists and local, regional, national and international media outlets in line with relevant legislation
- Cooperating with local, regional, national and international media and accepting membership in those institutions in line with relevant legislation
- Participating in the recruitment of journalists
- Addressing financial problems and the social welfare of journalists
- Creating greater media transparency, fighting corruption and tackling conflict of interest
- Promoting education, research, flow of information and publishing relevant information about all the issues listed above.
Reading the long list of its commitments, one cannot tell whether this is a state-sponsored or a non-governmental organization.
Saeed Jalilian, a lawyer and a legal expert, told Kayhan London: “There are a number of serious problems with this bill. It is weak and cannot be implemented in its current form. It is full of contradictions. For instance, the bill calls for the media organization to be formed by professional journalists. At the same time, the organization must decide who actually qualifies as a professional journalist. Clause 10 of Article 4 contradicts Article 5. It is unclear whether the organization or the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance would decide on the qualification of journalists. Also, the organizational charter clearly states that it must remain an independent body. But the Ministry of Culture has played a major role in drafting all of the articles in the bill.”
Jalilian added: “Clause 14 of Article 4 fails to clarify what ‘national media outlets’ refers to. For instance, the hardline Kayhan daily could be considered a national newspaper.” Jalilian noted: “Article 46 states that journalists would need a press permit to work. Article 56, however, allows professional journalists who don’t have a press permit to work. This is very confusing.”
Reporters must hold a press permit to be members of the organization or to sit on its board of directors. Press permits are issued by a committee that is selected by the board of directors. The committee in turn is set up by the Ministry of Culture. It is clear that the organization is not an independent media body, but operates under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture.
The bill also calls for the creation of a committee to investigate journalistic misconduct. It consists of the head of the provincial cultural office, two managing directors of local press or news agencies, a journalist, a retired appeal court judge, a provincial lawyer familiar with press laws and a local juror. Only one journalist sits on the committee.
Saeed Jalilian argued: “This bill is unconstitutional. It also violates press laws. Any press violation should be tried in a public court as required by law. The organization’s investigative committee is, however, given the power to cancel reporters’ press permits. This means imposing a serious penalty without legal due process. This is clearly against the law.”
The investigative committee is given the authority to impose penalties including:
- Demanding a formal apology
- Issuing a written reprimand
- Creating a case file
- Posting the incident report on the organization’s website
- Issuing a judgment
- Requesting financial compensation for the injured party
- Suspending membership in the organization or press license for 3 months to a year
- Suspending membership in the organization or press license for one to three years
- Suspending membership in the organization or press license for 5 to 10 years
Nearly 81 percent of journalists in the state-run and nongovernmental press and media outlets are against this bill, ILNA [Iranian Labor News Agency] has reported. Rouhani’s government is trying to amend the bill in order to have it ratified. Meanwhile, it is uncertain what will happen to the Association of Tehran Journalists, which started work with the blessing of the labor minister before the 2017 presidential elections.
The Association of Iranian Journalists was established in 1997. It was closed in 2009 by orders of the Tehran Prosecutor General Saeed Mortazavi. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance allowed the association to resume work in 2013. However, the spokesman for the Iranian judiciary, Gholam-Hossein Eje’i, said in October 2013 that the association would remain closed. It would appear that the government is trying to dissolve the independent Association of Iranian Journalists and replace it with the state-sponsored Media System Organization.