Censorship in Iran

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In 2019, Reporters Without Borders ranked Iran 170 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index[1]. This index lists countries from 1 to 180 based on the level of freedom journalists have to do their job[2]. Reporters Without Borders described Iran as “one of the world’s most repressive countries for journalists for the past 40 years”[1]. In the Freedom House Index, Iran also scores low on political rights and civil liberties and is classified as “not free”[3]. These bad rankings can partly be explained by the existence of censorship in Iran.

Censorship can broadly be described as “the knot that binds knowledge and power”[4]. This definition emphasizes the element of power in connection to knowledge but the definition doesn’t say anything about who censors what information and why. A more precise definition of censorship is: “censorship concerns the obstruction and the arbitrary suppression of discourse with the objective of manipulating public knowledge and, accordingly, shaping public opinion in favor of state power”[5]. Here, censorship is characterized as concerning mostly public information and serving the interests of the state. Censorship can be categorized into reactive measures where the flow of information is restricted and proactive measures which stimulate the creation of new media content in order to overshadow information unwanted by the government[6]. Censorship is therefore not only about blocking content but is affecting a complete society and is creating a culture of censorship[5].

In practice[edit]

After the Islamic revolution in 1979, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, also known as the Ershad, came into existence to control all cultural activities in the country[7]. From that moment on, all musicians, writers, artists and media makers needed permits that allowed them to publicly display their works. The Ershad is in charge of providing these permits and judges whether these works are in line with Islamic culture. Different departments within the Ershad are responsible for interpreting what fits and what does not fit Islamic culture and should therefore be censored[7]. At the head of this bureaucratic organization are the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Journalists also need a license before they can legally start working[8]. Licenses for journalists are provided by the Press Supervisory Board and will be withdrawn when journalists criticize state[8].

Censorship here is not just an act by an individual, it’s a process which involves interaction and negotiation. The complexity and ambiguity of the system stimulate self-censorship and result into a culture of censorship[7]. However, not everything is negotiable. Criticism on the Supreme Leader is for example strictly forbidden and journalists or artists who do not obey to the Iranian state, can face serious punishments[8].

Laws and regulations[edit]

The Iranian constitution contains many laws which restrict the flow of information. However, these laws are often ambiguous and vaguely worded. This thin legal basis leaves a lot of room for interpretation about what is legal and what is not[9]. Censorship regulation is therefore a highly subjective practice. It depends on the interpretation of the individual bureaucrat in charge whether censorship will be applied or not[9]. These laws can therefore easily be used by government officials who want to suppress dissenting voices[8]. What the Iranian constitution doesn’t do is protecting journalists and artists by giving them rights[8]. A few examples of these ambiguous laws will be given below.

The Iranian constitution states very general rules concerning freedom of expression. For Iranian citizens it’s not always clear what is allowed by the government and what is not. Article 24 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. The details of this exception will be specified by law”[10]. So far, there exists no law which specifies the details of this exception[9].

Article 3 of The Press Law states: “The press have the right to publish the opinions, constructive criticisms, suggestions and explanations of individuals and government officials for public information while duly observing the Islamic teachings and the best interest of the community"[11]. The first part of this law describes a lot of freedoms for the press but in the second part this freedom is restricted by very broad exceptions. Anything can be labeled as against “the interest of the community” and therefore the press should always be careful.

Article 500 of the penal code states: “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"[12]. But nowhere can be found what is seen as propaganda and what is not. Again, this vagueness gives judges a lot of room for interpreting what is against the law and should therefore be punished.


Iran has a long history with censorship. Especially reactive measures where information in newspapers, on television or on the internet is withhold from the public have been present for ages[13]. These forms of censorship were used for suppression of opposition and for influencing of public opinion[7]. Censorship in Iran comes in waves which exist parallel to political crises. In situations of crisis, the state tries to get power back by controlling information streams and thereby denying opposition groups influence on the public debate[7]. During the crisis that followed the nationalization of the oil industry in the 1950s, censorship was intensified to protect the Shah’s reputation. During the 1970s, in the years preceding the revolution, censorship was less present in the Iranian society. This created big developments in Iranian literature production[9]. However, in the years after the revolution censorship intensified again. The new Islamic leaders tried to consolidate their power by enforcing new regulations. And lastly, in the crisis after the 2009 elections, communication channels were shutdown to prevent major uprisings[7].

Subject matter and agenda[edit]

Censorship in Iran encompasses a wide range of subject matter. The agendas behind such censorship are varied; some are stated outright by Iranian government itself and some are surmised by observers inside and out of the country.


Censorship in Iran is largely seen as a measure to maintain the stability of the country. Censorship helps prevent unapproved reformist, counter-revolutionary, or religious proponents, peaceful or otherwise, from organizing themselves and spreading their ideals. In 2007, for example, five women were charged with "endangering national security" and sentenced to prison for collecting over a million signatures supporting the abolishment of laws discriminating against women.[14]

Some of the topics explicitly banned from discussion in the media by the Supreme National Security Council include Iran's economic troubles, the possibility of new international sanctions targeted at Iran's nuclear program, negotiations with the United States regarding Iraq, social taboos, unrest among Iran's ethnic minorities, and the arrests in 2007 of Haleh Esfandiari, Kian Tajbakhsh and Ali Shakeri.[14][15]


Two notable crackdowns on the Iranian press occurred on 7-11 August 1979, early in the Islamic Revolution when the Khomeini forces were consolidating control and dozens of non-Islamist newspapers were banned under a new press law banning "counter-revolutionary policies and acts."[16]

Despite a ban on satellite television, dishes dot many Iranian rooftops and people have access to dozens of Persian-language channels, including the Voice of America, broadcasting a daily dose of politics and entertainment. 30 percent of Iranians watch satellite channels, but observers say the figures are likely to be higher.[17]

A number of unauthorised foreign radio services also broadcast into Iran on shortwave, and encounter occasional jamming by the Iranian government due to their controversial nature. Such services include a popular phone-in programme from Kol Israel (Voice of Israel), where callers must dial a number in Europe to be rerouted to the studio in Israel in order to protect against persecution for communicating with an enemy state.[18]

In March 2009, Amoo Pourang (Uncle Pourang), an Iranian children television show watched by millions of Iranian children three times a week on state TV was pulled off after a child appearing on the program called his pet monkey "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad", live on air.[19]

In September 2017, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the Iranian judicial system and intelligence services (VEVAK) for their attempts to put pressure on Iranian journalists based abroad and on their families still in Iran in order to influence the Persian-language sections of international media outlets such as BBC Persian service to broadcast pro government programs and news.[20]


In the first decade of the 21st century, Iran experienced a great surge in Internet usage, and, with 20 million people on the Internet, currently has the second highest percentage of its population online in the Middle East, after Israel. When initially introduced, the Internet services provided by the government within Iran were comparatively open. Many users saw the Internet as an easy way to get around Iran's strict press laws.[21][22] In recent years, Internet service providers have been told to block access to pornographic and anti-religion websites. The ban has also targeted gaming platforms such as Steam as well as popular social networking sites as Facebook and YouTube, alongside some news websites.[17]

Banned media[edit]

In 2010, Iranian government began using cropping and other editing techniques to censor foreign movies deemed offensive or immoral. The thought behind this was that citizens would stop seeking out illegal, uncensored versions if approved versions of the films were broadcast. Censorship cut out the following: alcoholic beverages, sorcery, men and women sitting too closely together or touching, closeups of women's faces, low necklines on shirts, and many others. People are sometimes edited out or objects are strategically placed to cover what is considered inappropriate. For example, a low neckline on a woman's shirt is edited to be more modest. Dialogue in foreign films is often rewritten. For example, romantic implications are replaced with marriage proposals.[23]

Video games[edit]


The agents of censorship are sometimes not official government employees, but religious organizations. In 2007, after student newspapers at Amirkabir University of Technology published articles suggesting that no human being—including Muhammad—could be infallible, eight student leaders were arrested and taken to Evin Prison.[14]

Distributing Christian literature in Persian (also known as Farsi) is prohibited.[32][33]


Unwritten Law in Iran says: Arrest and Suppression of Artists.

On 1 March 2010, Jafar Panahi was arrested. On 20 December 2010, Panahi, after being convicted for "assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic," the Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced Panahi to six years imprisonment and a 20-year ban on making or directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving any form of interview with Iranian or foreign media as well as leaving the country except for Hajj holy pilgrimage to Mecca or medical treatment. Panahi's colleague,On October 15, 2011, a court in Tehran upheld Panahi's sentence and ban. Following the courts decision, Panahi was placed under house arrest. He has since been allowed to move more freely but he cannot travel outside Iran.

Hossein Rajabian, an Iranian independent filmmaker, After finishing his first feature film, was arrested by Iranian security forces on 5 October 2013 outside his office [in Sari] alongside two musicians, and was transferred to Ward 2-A of Evin Prison where all three of them were held in solitary confinement for more than two months and were threatened with televised confessions.his case was heard at Branch 28 of Tehran Revolutionary Court which was presided over by Judge Moghisseh' He was sentenced to six years in prison and fines for pursuing illegal cinematic activities, launching propaganda against the establishment and hurling insults at sanctities.

Censorship of the name of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, former Shah of Iran, in a tomb in Iran

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Iran". Reporters Without Borders.
  2. ^ "The World Press Freedom Index". Reporters Without Borders. 19 April 2016.
  3. ^ "Freedom in the World 2019, Iran". Freedom House. 30 January 2019.
  4. ^ Jansen, Sue (1988). Censorship: the Knot That Binds Power and Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. ^ a b Rahimi, Babak (Summer 2015). "Censorship and the Islamic Republic: Two Modes of Regulatory Measures for Media in Iran". The Middle East Journal. 69 (3): 358–378. doi:10.3751/69.3.12.
  6. ^ Kalathil, Shanthi and Boas, Taylor C. (2003). Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ a b c d e f Rahimi, Babak (Summer 2015). "Censorship and the Islamic Republic: Two Modes of Regulatory Measures for Media in Iran". The Middle East Journal. 69 (3): 358–378. doi:10.3751/69.3.12.
  8. ^ a b c d e "Freedom of the Press 2017, Iran". Freedom House. 28 April 2017.
  9. ^ a b c d Atwood, Blake (2012). "Sense and Censorship in the Islamic Republic of Iran". World Literature Today. 86 (3): 38–41. doi:10.7588/worllitetoda.86.3.0038.
  10. ^ "Iran (Islamic Republic of) 1979 (rev. 1989)". Constitute Project.
  11. ^ "Iran (Islamic Republic of) Press Law". WIPO, World Intellectual Property Organization.
  12. ^ "Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran – Book Five". Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
  13. ^ "Revolution anniversary – 39 years of news control and censorship in Iran". Reporters Without Borders. 13 February 2018.
  14. ^ a b c MacFarquhar, Neil. (2007). "Iran Cracks Down on Dissent" Archived 25 July 2016 at the Wayback Machine. The New York Times. Retrieved 24 June 2007.
  15. ^ Iran, Annual Report 2007 Archived 30 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine Reporters Without Borders
  16. ^ Schirazi, The Constitution of Iran, Tauris, 1997 p.51
  17. ^ a b Media and internet Archived 20 February 2016 at the Wayback Machine Yahoo!
  18. ^ "Listening to Iran" Archived 7 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (2008)
  19. ^ Robert Tait (11 March 2009). "Children's show falls foul of toy monkey called Ahmadinejad". The Guardian. London.
  20. ^ Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  21. ^ Feuilherade, P. (2002.) "Iran's banned press turns to the net" Archived 14 June 2004 at the Wayback Machine. BBC.com. Retrieved 9 December 2006.
  22. ^ BBC News. (2003.) "Iran Steps Up Net Censorship" Archived 22 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine. BBC. Retrieved 9 December 2006.
  23. ^ Fisher, Max. "Cropped Modesty: Iran's High-Tech Tricks for Censoring American Movies". The Atlantic. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  24. ^ لیلی نیکونظر (18 November 2007). گزارش یک توقیف. Shahrvand-e Emrooz (in Persian). 2 (25): 12.
  25. ^ Curiel, Jonathan (11 February 2004). "In Iran, nightclubs are banned and concerts are rare, but movies abound. The Fajr festival is the country's Cannes". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 27 February 2007.
  26. ^ "با حکمیت می‌شود مشکل به رنگ ارغوان را حل کرد". Cinemaema.com. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 15 April 2007.
  27. ^ Farzian, Behzad (6 May 2004). "Call for ban on film that mocks Iran's mullahs". Telegraph. London. Retrieved 27 February 2007.
  28. ^ "Iran bans US video game showing Tehran invasion". AFP. 28 November 2011.
  29. ^ "'Arma 3' banned in Iran". 19 September 2012. Archived from the original on 23 April 2016. Retrieved 2014-01-24.
  30. ^ "Iran denies licence to ArmA III computer game". 19 September 2012. Archived from the original on 21 February 2014. Retrieved 2012-09-20.
  31. ^ "PC game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday banned in Iran, accused of 'hostile intentions'". International Business Times. 9 June 2016.
  32. ^ (www.dw.com), Deutsche Welle. "What it's like to be a Christian in Iran | DW | 25.01.2016". DW.COM. Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  33. ^ Cohen, Ben (28 September 2011). "Facing Execution for the 'Crime' of Being a Christian In Iran". Fox News. Retrieved 11 April 2018.

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