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, as well as to bring ordinary citizens into adherence with the government’s moral code.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: The law limits freedom of speech, including by members of the press. Authorities did not permit individuals 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. They also often punished persons who publicly criticized the president, the cabinet, and the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament). 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. Citizens also faced restrictions on social interaction and expression because authorities threatened arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.
According to AI on June 16, officials from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security arrested retired university professor Hossein Rafiee without a warrant and transferred him to Evin Prison. Authorities did not inform Rafiee of the reasons for his arrest until one month later, when the government stated authorities had arrested him to serve a four-year prison sentence from 2004 for “membership in an illegal group.” Authorities sentenced Rafiee to additional prison sentences for “spreading propaganda against the state” and banned him from political and journalistic activities for two years. He remained imprisoned at year’s end.
Press and Media 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, or did not renew for individuals facing criminal charges or incarcerated for political reasons. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country by requiring foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limiting their ability to travel within the country, and forcing them to work with a local “minder.” Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the main governmental agency in charge of audiovisual policy, directed all government-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 parliament 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 substitutions for terms deemed inappropriate. Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations.
According to Reporters without Borders, on August 3, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance ordered the closure of conservative publication 9 Dey for the third time in two years for criticizing the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It also threatened two other publications, Kayhan and Rajanews, with closure if they continued to publish anti-JCPOA material. Authorities charged another daily newspaper, Vatan-e Emrooz, with “publishing secret government documents.”
On October 13, the Press Supervisory Board sued daily newspaper Royesh Mellat for “defamation of figures and institutions and organizations and an insult to legal persons with religious veneration” for its use of the term “death” rather than “martyrdom” in reference to deaths of IRGC soldiers fighting in Syria.
According to reformist newspaper Roozonline, authorities raided and closed the offices of the bilingual Kurdish-Farsi news website, Rafangah, in October. Earlier in the year, authorities arrested two Kurdish journalists in Mahbad for their reporting.
On April 27, the Press Supervisory Council ordered the closure of the women’s magazine, Zanan-e Emrooz, for “encouraging the antisocial and religiously unsanctioned phenomenon known as white marriage,” after it published an article on premarital cohabitation. The government allowed the magazine to reopen after the seven-month ban expired, and it resumed publishing in November. The government had previously closed the publication from 2006 until 2014.
Under the constitution private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through the government 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 socioreligious ideology. There were widespread reports of government “downlink” jamming of satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous, although police launched campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout 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 authorities often subjected journalists in prison to solitary confinement. The UN special rapporteur’s August 31 report noted the UN secretary-general’s concern over the imprisoning of journalists on vaguely defined national security charges. Reporters without Borders estimated that 37 journalists remained in prison at year’s end. International NGOs reported that authorities forced several citizen journalists into internal exile during the year, and authorities continued to close publications for political reasons.
On November 17, a court sentenced journalist Reyhaneh Tabatabaee to one year in prison and barred her from membership in political parties and the use of social media for two years on charges of “propaganda against the regime.” According to IranWire, the government arrested and released her on three previous occasions, and she spent more than six months in Evin Prison for her journalistic work and activism.
On February 15, a Tehran court sentenced Forozandeh Adibi, the editor of the monthly, Mehrnameh, to a fine and a two-year ban from working as a journalist for articles published in the magazine. On November 2, the IRGC arrested journalists Issa Saharkhiz, Ehsan Mazandarani, Afarin Chitsaz, and Saman Safarzaie on charges of membership in “an infiltration group connected to the United States and United Kingdom,” according to the ICHRI.
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 and the situation of minorities, as well as criticism of the government. Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board referred such complaints to the Media Court for further action, including closure, suspension, and fines.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s censorship practice is to bar inappropriate content, including references pertaining to alcohol, describing physical contact between an unmarried woman and man, or mentions of the mass protests that occurred after the disputed 2009 presidential elections. Judiciary spokesman Golamhossein Mohseni Ejei warned journalists at a February 16 press conference that media would be banned or fined if they published information about individuals designated as “heads of sedition,” alluding to former president Khatami; former presidential candidates held under house arrest, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi; and Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard (see section 1.d., Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees).
Libel/Slander Laws: 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 February 2, a court sentenced former journalist Abbas Salimi Namin to six months’ imprisonment and 74 lashes for insulting former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a 2011 televised debate, according to the UN special rapporteur’s August report.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, monitored private online communications, and censored online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.
According to Internet World Stats, the internet penetration rate was 57 percent, with 41 percent of the population regularly using the internet. 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 invoked the law to close websites during the year.
NGOs reported the government continued to filter content on the internet. On May 5, Information and Communications Technology Minister Mahmoud Vaezi announced that the government had launched the second phase of “Smart Filtering,” to “protect society from immoral harm” from certain websites and social networks. In September the supreme leader renewed the mandate of the Supreme Council for Cyberspace, which formulates the country’s internet policies and regulations. The renewal transferred the Supreme Council from the authority of the president to the authority of the supreme leader.
In October the government briefly blocked the online messaging service, Telegram, for “spreading immoral content.” Following its return to service in November, the government blocked 20 “channels,”–platforms similar to YouTube channels–and IRGC forces arrested their administrators. The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology reviewed Telegram’s operations on November 18 to determine whether to block the program and repeatedly asked the application to self-censor, according to Telegram founder Pavel Durov. The ministry’s Workgroup for Discerning Criminal Content determined that the ministry would allow Telegram to operate under heavy government surveillance. While Telegram has some additional security features that make it more difficult for the content of its communications among users to be read by a third party, it was not clear whether the government was able to intercept and read content, as it has done previously with other similar applications such as WhatsApp and Viber.
Organizations, including the Basij “Cyber Council,” the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which was presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, 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 problems. NGOs reported that the government attempted to block internet users’ access to technology that would allow them to circumvent government content filters.
Although Twitter is officially banned in the country, the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and various other government-associated officials and entities.
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; however, in general there were slight improvements to speed as the government expanded access to 3G services for mobile devices.
According to the UN special rapporteur’s reports, serious difficulties persisted, including severe content restrictions, intimidation and prosecution of users, and limitations on access through the intentional slowing of service and filtering. The most heavily blocked websites were in the arts, society, politics, and news categories.
In October the government banned actress Sadaf Taherian from returning to the country after she posted photos on her social media account that showed her not wearing the “hejab” (headscarf), which is mandatory in the country for all women appearing in public. Authorities briefly arrested an unnamed man for posting photos with members of the opposite sex who were not wearing the hejab on his social media account in November, according to multiple press reports. Authorities also banned television show host and chef, Maedeh Hajari, from working after she commented disparagingly on social media sites about the death of an IRGC commander killed in Syria.
The ICHRI reported that the Center for Investigation of Organized Cyber Crimes, a branch of the IRGC Cyber Defense Command, issued a press release January 31 claiming that several Facebook users had been arrested in a surveillance project called “Operation Spider,” designed to stop the spread of corruption.
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 prevented their university enrollment because of their political activities. In a 2013 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. According to HRANA, Aref announced during the year that he had left the country to pursue his studies elsewhere since authorities prohibited him from studying in the country.
According to the ICHRI, a court sentenced husband and wife Peyman Koushk-Baghi and Azita Rafizadeh to five and four years in prison, respectively, for their work with the online university of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). The judge convicted them for “membership in the illegal and misguided Bahai group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute.” Bahai students were barred from attending university unless they renounced their faith.
The government maintained controls on cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits, and censored those deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored or banned films deemed to contradict Islamic values by promoting secularism, non-Islamic ideas about women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcoholism.
In July the Iranian Cinema Organization removed the film Rastakhiz, from cinemas and banned its further screening, after several conservative clerics complained about its depiction of religious figures.
On October 13, a court sentenced filmmaker Kayvan Karimi to six years in prison and 223 lashes for “insulting the sanctities” with his documentary film on political graffiti. Authorities originally arrested Karimi on these charges in 2013. According to international media reports, AI, and his family, authorities arrested filmmaker Mostafa Azizi on February 1 and sentenced him to eight years in prison for “propaganda against the state,” “acting against national security in cyberspace,” and “insulting the supreme leader.” Authorities reportedly placed him in solitary confinement at Evin Prison for several months, and he has not been provided access to medical care for chronic asthma and shingles, which he developed while incarcerated. His appeal was still pending at year’s end. On December 2, authorities detained songwriter and poet Yaghma Golrouee for the content of his work, which generally touched on love and social issues like poverty, addiction, and environmental problems. Authorities released Golrouee on bail on December 9. Charges were unknown at year’s end.
Officials continued to discourage teaching music in schools. In November authorities barred the Tehran Symphony from publicly performing due to the inclusion of female musicians. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must officially approve a song’s lyrics and music as complying with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission. Authorities considered heavy metal and foreign music religiously offensive, and police continued to repress underground concerts and music groups.