The constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” The law states that anyone who undertakes any form of propaganda against the state may be imprisoned for as long as one year; the law does not define “propaganda.” The law also provides for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state or national security or “insulting” Islam; the latter offense is punishable by death. 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. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the government continued a campaign of press intimidation throughout the year.
Freedom of Speech: The law limits freedom of speech, including by members of the press. Individuals were not permitted to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the country’s judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions and often punished as well persons who publicly criticized the president, the cabinet, and the Islamic Consultative Assembly. The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of opposition members, reformists, activists, and human rights defenders. It often charged persons with crimes against national security and insulting the regime based on letters, e-mails, and other public and private communications. According to the August 1 Amnesty International report, during the year anyone deemed critical of authorities, particularly journalists, were at increased risk of arrest and prosecution, creating and intense climate of fear.
Press Freedoms: The government’s Press Supervisory Board issues press licenses, which it sometimes revoked in response to articles critical of the government or the regime. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials. The government did not permit foreign media organizations to film or take photographs in the country, required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, and attempted to influence correspondents through pressure. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the main governmental agency in charge of audiovisual policy, directed all state-owned media. Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the audiovisual policy agency; a council composed of representatives of the president, the judiciary, and the Islamic Consultative Assembly oversees the agency’s activities. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance reviews all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release and may deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require word substitution for terms deemed inappropriate.
Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations. It closed or prohibited opposition and reformist newspapers, intimidated and arrested journalists and censored news. Censorship and temporary closures for allegedly insulting the regime were also aimed at government-controlled print media. For example, on February 18, authorities reportedly shut down the Aseman newspaper after it published an article criticizing the country’s retributive criminal punishment practices as “inhumane.”
On March 8, according to the UN special rapporteur’s August 27 report, a court ordered the closure of the reformist daily newspaper Bahar for an additional six months, following its original closure in November 2013 after it published an opinion article questioning whether the Prophet Muhammad had appointed Imam Ali his successor, one of Shia Islam’s principal beliefs. On October 10, the media reported that the Press Supervisory Board head cleared the newspaper of charges.
In December authorities banned the online newspaper Roozan without an official explanation, although many online scholars and activists commented that it was likely due to Roozan’s publishing of a photo of the late Ayatollah Montazeri on its cover. (Montazeri, a human rights activist, was once expected to be the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, but he split from Khomeini in 1989 because of disagreements over government policies with respect to citizens’ rights.)
Under the constitution private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through the state 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 socio-religious ideology. There were widespread reports of the government’s engagement in the local “downlink” jamming of satellite broadcasts. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous, although police launched several campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes around the country under warrants provided by the judiciary.
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 (see also section 1.e.). The government also harassed many journalists’ families, and journalists in prison were often subjected to solitary confinement. According to the UN special rapporteur’s August 27 report, at least 35 journalists were in detention at the time, and harassment, interrogation, and surveillance of other journalists reportedly continued. Several journalists, including Yeganah Salehi, Mehdi Khalazi, and Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, were arrested between June and August. Three others, Reyhaneh Tabatabaei, Mahnaz Mohammadi, and Marzieh Rasoulis, were summoned to begin serving prison sentences. Several others, including Seraj Miramadi, Farideh Shahgholi, and Hossein Nourani received new prison sentences. International NGOs reported that several citizen journalists were forced into exile during the year and that authorities continued to close publications for political reasons.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on April 17, several imprisoned journalists, including Mohamed Sedigh Kabouvand, Saeed Matinpour, Omid Behroozi, Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, Siamak Ghaderi, and Saeed Haeri, were among the persons attacked and severely beaten and injured when intelligence officials raided a section of Tehran’s Evin Prison, according to Kaleme and other opposition news sources.
There were developments in previous years’ cases. According to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an international advocacy group, on March 14, Saeed Madani, a sociologist and human rights activist, and Reza Entessari, a Majzooban-e Noor website reporter and photojournalist, were unexpectedly transferred together to Rajaishahr Prison. Transfers to Rajaishahr Prison were considered by some domestic and international NGOs to be a punishment for prisoners and their families due to its isolated location. In June 2013 a court sentenced Madani to six years in prison and 10 years of internal exile in Bandar Abbas for “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the system.” In July 2013 a court sentenced Entessari to eight years and six months in prison for “establishing an illegal group with the intent to undermine national security,” “propaganda against the system,” “insulting the leader,” and “disrupting the public order.”
In July 2013 journalist Fatemeh Kheradmand received a one-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the system” in connection with her work on an internet magazine. According to media sources, Kheradmand fled the country when released on bail, but, after being summoned to return, she began her sentence in October 2013.
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--both reformist and conservative--that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, and criticism of the government. Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against reformist newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board referred such complaints to the Media Court for further action, including closure, suspension, and fines. For example, according to media sources, on May 7, the Tehran judiciary suspended the reformist newspaper Ghanoon, reportedly for reporting on the enormous bail set for a government official. Court proceedings were public with a jury composed of appointed clerics, government officials, and editors of government-controlled newspapers.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s censorship’s practice is to bar inappropriate content, including references pertaining to alcohol or describing physical contact between an unmarried woman and man.
On December 26, the government announced plans to expand its so-called “smart filtering” practices, whereby it censors certain prohibited internet content without completely blocking the websites on which such content appears. At the time of the announcement, authorities appeared to be applying smart filtering only to the photo-sharing website Instagram.
Libel Laws/National Security: 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. If the libel, insult, or criticism involves Islam or national security, the responsible person may be charged with apostasy and crimes against national security, respectively. 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.
On August 10, HRANA reported the Shiraz Revolutionary Court sentenced Ibrahim Farabad Fallahiyah to six years in prison on charges of insulting the supreme leader, founding an illegal group named Gorooh-e-Sabz-e-Shiraz (Green Group of Shiraz), disturbing national security, and spreading propaganda against the supreme leader.
There were developments in several cases from previous years. According to a March 27 ICHRI report, hundreds of lawyers asked the judiciary for an immediate review of judicial violations in the cases of Mostafa Daneshjoo, Farshid Yadollahi, Amir Eslami, and Omid Behrouzi. Judicial violations allegedly included the courts denying the defendants access to a lawyer of their choice, failing to make the cases available to all the lawyers involved in the preparation of their defense, and convening the court in the absence of all the lawyers representing the defendants as well as a representative from the Prosecutor’s Office.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, monitored private online communications, and censored online content. Individuals and groups self-censored. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.
According to a 2013 World Bank study, 31.4 percent of the population used the internet and approximately 5.6 percent of households subscribed to fixed broadband services.
Reflecting the internet’s importance as a source for news and forum for political expression, the government adopted technology and shaped restrictive laws enabling it to ban access to particular sites and to filter traffic based on its content. 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 ministry, which, along with the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office, compose the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites, the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. The same law that applies to traditional press applies to electronic media, and the Press Supervisory Board and judiciary used the law to close websites during the year.
NGOs reported that the government continued enhanced restrictions on access to the internet that were initially imposed in advance of the 2013 presidential election. These restrictions included a change in the government’s filtering methodology from “uniform resource locator (URL) filtering” to “content filtering” before the election. This change effectively imposed content-based restrictions on material not previously banned. Internet traffic over mobile communication devices, including cell phones, was reportedly subject to the same restrictions as traffic operating over fixed-line connections.
The Supreme Council for Cyberspace formulates the country’s internet policies and devises plans to regulate its use. The Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content, headed by the prosecutor general and judiciary, reportedly implements the council’s decisions regarding the filtering and blocking access to sensitive websites.
Organizations, including the Basij “Cyber Council,” the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which was presumed to be controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyber threats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on social networking websites officially banned by the Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government, including by raising sensitive social issues. NGOs reported that the government attempted to block internet users’ access to technology that would allow them to circumvent government content filters.
Notwithstanding government restrictions, many individuals used social media regularly, ranging across the spectrum from heavy users like urban youth to more measured users in high positions. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif posted messages using a verified Twitter account. Active Twitter accounts purporting to belong to Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rouhani were widely considered to be authentic and run by their respective offices.
Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access, and the government requires cybercafes to install security cameras and to collect users’ personal information. The government periodically reduced internet speed to discourage downloading material.
According to the UN special rapporteur’s August report, serious difficulties persisted, including severe content restrictions, intimidation, and prosecution of users, and limitations on access through the intentional slowing of service and filtering. As of August authorities blocked approximately five million websites. The most heavily blocked websites were in the arts, society, and news categories.
The government prosecuted and punished several bloggers and webmasters, such as student activist Arash Sadeghi and his wife, Golrokh Abrahami Iraei, for the peaceful expression of dissenting views (see section 1.e). Similarly, according to the Kaleme news agency, on May 28, the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced eight Facebook commenters to a combined 123 years in prison on various charges, including insulting the country’s supreme leader, blasphemy, propaganda against the state, and spreading lies. Their sentences ranged from seven to 20 years in prison (see also section 1.e.).
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 based on their political or religious affiliation or activism, and restricting social sciences and humanities curricula. Women were restricted from enrolling in several courses of study and faced limited program opportunities, quotas on program admission, and gender-segregated classes (see section 6, Women).
Although universities reportedly re-admitted a number of students previously expelled under a “star” system inaugurated in 2005 by then president Ahmadinejad to mark politically active students, other “starred” students reported that government authorities still interfered with their university enrollment because of their political activities. In an October 12 open letter to President Rouhani, activist and former political prisoner Peyman Aref wrote that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security blocked his enrollment in a doctoral program after he provided testimony in support of Rouhani’s impeached minister of science and research, Reza Faraji-Dana. Faraji-Dana reportedly had attempted to reinstate some university professors whom authorities had dismissed in accordance with a policy of removing and denying tenure to secular professors or for deviating from the government-sanctioned perspective on such topics as the situation of women, ethnic and religious minorities, drug abuse, and domestic violence.
The government maintained controls on cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits and censored those deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored films that authorities deemed contradicted Islamic values by promoting secularism, non-Islamic ideas about women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcoholism. Cultural creators self-censored in response, while others faced risk of arrest. For example, on May 20, authorities arrested six young citizens and forced them to repent on state television for posting a homemade music video on YouTube of them dancing to a popular international song. After international outrage over its actions, the government released all six.
Music remained banned in all schools, and the media reported that officials continued to discourage teaching music in general. The Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry must officially approve a song’s lyrics and music as complying with the country’s moral values, although many bands released albums without seeking such permission. Heavy metal and foreign music were considered religiously offensive, and police continued to crack down on underground concerts and music groups.