Not a lot has been written about the media in present-day Iran. Even for many outside the country, the topic seems too hot to touch—much as it was three regimes ago, in the Qajar period.
Mirza Saleh Shirazi, who was sent to the UK in 1815, brought back the technology to establish the first Persian-language newspaper, Kaghaz-e Akhbar (literally “News-Paper”), “the first in a long series of periodicals designed to represent the government’s official point of view on matters of politics and policy.”
From Afshin Marashi, an overview of “Politics and the Press in Iran”:
At the same time that the state was working to establish an official press, dissident and radical groups in Iranian society were beginning to recognize the usefulness of the new technology of print to disseminate ideas and shape public opinion. Significantly, this early Persian-language radical press was almost invariably published outside of Iran. London, Calcutta, Cairo, Istanbul, and Baku were all important cities with sizable communities of Iranian expatriates, and during the second half of the nineteenth century these expatriate communities became the home for an emerging radical Persian-language press.
Even today, the leading chroniclers of Iranian media take on the subject not just from the distance of the UK, but the perch of academia.
Hossein Shahidi’s doctoral thesis at Oxford, revised and co-edited with Homa Katouzian, was published by Routledge in 2007 (and later translated into Persian). Though a valuable resource, the title, Journalism in Iran: From Mission to Profession, offers too optimistic an assessment, presupposing a climate in the Islamic Republic where such a transformation might be possible.
Comparing university education in journalism before and after the Revolution, Shahidi himself notes:
The pre-Revolution College of Social Communication Sciences had been highly selective in its admissions policy and very demanding in its academic programme, with BA students required to complete 36 credit units in English as well as French, German or Italian. MA students were supplied with “the best resources” and had to perform to very high standards of achievement. Students admitted to the mid-1990s BA communication programme at Allameh Tabatabaee University had had communication among the lowest of the 75 choices they could make when taking the general university entrance examination. Most had had high school grade averages of between 10 and 12 out of 20, with the highest achievers among them reaching 14.00.
Shahidi’s own journalism background was shaped at the BBC World Service in London, where he spent nearly two decades (1983–2001), including as a trainer of other journalists. BBC Persian, now a subsidiary of the World Service, was established in 1940 as a radio program to broadcast wartime propaganda. Through the 1953 coup, the 1979 Revolution, and the 2009 launch of a satellite television station shortly before that June’s contested presidential election to accusations today that it is too closely associated with the discredited line of the so-called Reformists, the role of the BBC has been controversial in Iran. For all its faults—real or imagined—the BBC has played a leading role in professionalizing cadres of Iranian journalists, generation after generation.
In The Persian Service: The BBC and British Interests in Iran (2014), Annabelle Sreberny and Massoumeh Torfeh take on this often fraught history. Examining the relationship of the BBC to the Foreign Office, they come to the conclusion that it advocates “fair and balanced journalism as the best agent of British values and influence.”
“That does not mean this was always achieved,” adds Sreberny, who has taken on the brunt of documenting the contemporary Iranian media landscape.
In addition to her many scholarly articles and deep dive into the BBC, she has two other books to her credit on the topic: Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution (1994), with Ali Mohammadi, and Blogestan: The Internet and Politics in Iran (2010), coauthored with Gholam Khiabany.
Despite the decades between the phenomena of “small media,” from the pulpit and a fistful of cassettes in 1978 to the proliferation of independent voices on blogs and the ongoing disruption of a succession of social media platforms, there is a profound sense of déjà vu, if not actual progress.
In The Man in the Mirror (1987), Canadian journalist Carole Jerome recounts events as they unfolded behind the scenes in the Paris suburb where Ayatollah Khomeini took refuge as a last resort once he was ejected from Iraq. Though it may not have been to his taste, his temporary Western exile gave him wide-ranging access to the international media headquartered in bureaus nearby. He may not have been so lucky in Najaf.
As Jerome tries to cover Khomeini and his men, she gets harassed by Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, a close aide to Khomeini, who was also her secret lover, to don the hejab and be respectful of their religion.
On a first-name basis with other foreign journalists as well, Ghotbzadeh would go on to become the first managing director of National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT) after the Revolution, and then foreign minister, before facing Khomeini’s firing squad in 1982.
From The Man in the Mirror:
Day after day, I joined the milling reporters at Neauphle le Château. Sadegh and two others, Abolhassan Band Sadr and Ibrahim Yazdi, formed a kind of magi—a trio of wise men—around the Ayatollah. Because they had had Western education, they translated Khomeini’s daily pronouncements into either French or English. They took turns in the spotlight and the media ignored the powerful figures in turbans who came and went in the shadows. What no one knew then was that the Ayatollah’s men—Sadegh, Bani Sadr and Yazdi—also took turns writing the Imam’s speeches.
I watched them with both concern and amusement. These three were made for television. They provided endless spectacle—in our own language. But almost always Yazdi’s English translation differed widely from Bani Sadr’s French, and the next day Sadegh would say something completely different in both languages.
Meanwhile, Khomeini’s speeches in the original, unadulterated Farsi, calling for sacrifice and martyrdom, were captured on cassettes and smuggled into Iran, or played over the phone and recorded in inferior quality there. The tapes were broadcast in the bazaars and the growing number of mosques built, ironically, by the Shah, in numbers “unprecedented in the history of modern Iran,” particularly from 1970 to 1975, according to Abbas Milani. “A great historic strategic mistake in the sense that he assumed that the clergy are his allies.”
Ghotbzadeh was also used as a back channel to Khomeini by Western powers who thought there was room to negotiate with him.
“I have a message from American president Jimmy Carter,” Claude Chayet, the French chief of consular affairs, said to Khomeini during one of Chayet’s numerous trips to check up on him. “He says to tell you that the United States will not oppose any new government in Iran as long as representative elections are held.”
“We in the French government are concerned about the safety of religious minorities and about such people as Amir Abbas Hoveyda, if you come to power,” Chayet added. The former prime minister had been cut loose by the Shah in one of his last-ditch efforts to appease the revolutionaries. Hoveyda, who was in prison at the time, would soon be executed by Khomeini after the ayatollah came to power.
“But, my dear sir,” Khomeini is said to have replied through Ghotbzadeh, who was translating, “I have fought to put an end to the regime that tortures, terrorizes, spills the blood of opponents. Do you think I would take over only to put on the same boots?”
Kelly Golnoush Niknejad
Editor in Chief