Spooked by the success of citizen journalists in revealing the magnitude of the state-sponsored crackdown on protests and the critical role of popular public figures in mobilizing grassroots activists, Iran's parliament is pursuing two pieces of legislation that boil down to a government fiat that Iranians shouldn't have public opinions and express them freely.
As part of the first legislation, which is being euphemistically promoted as a "bill to criminalize the publication of news contradicting citizenship rights," the judicial commission of Iran's Majlis, or parliament, is working to codify into law a ban on publishing—both by individuals and media outlets—any news that may have "detrimental societal consequences."
According to hard-line Iranian MP Mohammad-Taghi Naghdali, anyone who publishes "mendacious reports" on social media should be held accountable—and they will be punished if they cannot compensate for the so-called negative impacts of what they publish. He added that the "exaggeration of news" also falls within the ambit of the bill's punitive measures.
Kazem Delkhosh, another hard-line MP who backs the bill, said anyone in Iran who publishes "inaccurate news" online or promotes it should appear before a judge. There would be no distinction, he warned, between "individuals or media" in how the law would be enforced.
Iran's parliament is pursuing two pieces of legislation that boil down to a government fiat that Iranians shouldn't have public opinions and express them freely.
- Kourosh Ziabari
This is still a tentative proposal and requires the final endorsement of the majority of the 290 lawmakers in the Majlis and then a seal of approval by the powerful Guardian Council. But given the composition of both bodies, dominated by hard-liners and fervent supporters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, it isn't far-fetched for it to become law soon. It is only the latest sign of how Iran's parliament is not seeking to address the pressing issues that matter to most Iranians or respond to the public outcry in the streets since September. Instead, this reactionary legislation is essentially trying to outlaw citizen journalism, after ordinary Iranians played an indispensable role documenting the atrocities by police and security forces on the streets of Iran since September.
The second piece of proposed legislation seeks to criminalize statements by high-profile public figures on social media, with up to 15 years in prison for people of "social, political, family, scientific, cultural and military" stature who attempt to express opinions "inconsistent with the reality" in Iran as stated by the authorities. The bill, however farcical and Orwellian it may seem, essentially means that the Iranian people should parrot the government's line in any opinion they share publicly about matters of national or international importance.
The law is tantamount to engineering public opinion—to eliminate any freedom of expression online and suppress the intellectual diversity of Iranian society. It is no doubt a reaction to the astonishing role that Iranian celebrities have played during the "Woman, Life, Freedom" protests, contesting official state narratives and expressing sympathy and solidarity with demonstrators—which clearly caused the leadership of the Islamic Republic much discomfort. Many of these celebrities have also been targeted and punished by the regime for speaking out. Parliament wants to formalize that crackdown in law, so that actors, athletes, artists and other celebrities cannot question the regime or present ideas on social media that the theocracy deems disobedient or irksome.
Iran's media laws are already strict enough. Under existing laws, independent media are jockeying for survival, the government has carte blanche to take a myriad of arbitrary measures to stifle critical journalists, and any view that belies the government-mandated version of events can risk legal charges, imprisonment and worse.
In December, Reporters Without Borders named Iran as the third-worst jailer of journalists after China and Myanmar; at least 47 journalists remain behind bars in Iran. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 95 journalists have been arrested since the beginning of the protests on Sept. 16, 2022, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the so-called morality police. Those journalists facing the most serious charges are the ones who first broke the story of her death. The Iranian government blamed the media for fomenting unrest, rather than finding fault with its own morality police or its objectionable policies against women, including the reviled hijab law.
"Different types of governments at least attempt to shape and control master narratives that affect their legitimacy and power," said Pantea Javidan, a research fellow at Stanford University's Center for Human Rights and International Justice. "The more authoritarian and insecure the regime or administration, the more threatened by a free press and authentic reporting, since media is capable of exposing their lack of sufficient support and disapproval among citizens, which is necessary for human rights, democratic governance, justice and accountability."
"The more authoritarian and insecure the regime or administration, the more threatened by a free press and authentic reporting."
- Pantea Javidan, research fellow at Stanford University's Center for Human Rights and International Justice
Iranian authorities and pro-regime pundits like to bluster about Iran being a free and democratic country, where everyone is allowed to have different views and express them without facing intimidation—especially when compared to other authoritarian governments in the Middle East. They often claim that Iran's constitution has recognized these fundamental rights and entitled the media and civil society to challenge the government. But in practice, these boasts ring hollow given the government's track record. In Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index 2022, Iran is ranked 178 out of 180 countries surveyed, only above Eritrea and North Korea. "Journalists and independent media in Iran are constantly persecuted by means of arbitrary arrests and very heavy sentences handed down after grossly unfair trials before revolutionary courts," Reporters Without Borders noted.
For a political and religious establishment obsessed with ensuring that every Iranian thinks and behaves according to its terms, these bills, if passed, could be a vehicle for increased surveillance and silencing of public opinion, even if there would be questions about how the laws would actually be enforced. Courts would be overwhelmed going after every single artist, athlete or academic for publishing a critical viewpoint on social media, and the authorities cannot take away every Iranian's smartphone.
"As the wording of the law is quite broad and can easily refer to any post on social media about Iranian politics, there are valid fears that the revolutionary courts can easily establish grounds for a simple tweet to be punished as a criminal act," said Sahar Maranlou, a lecturer at Essex Law School in the United Kingdom. "The authorities should understand that journalism is not a crime, and such a bill will only result in violating the rights of people to information guaranteed by Iran's 2009 Publication and Free Access to Information Act."
Browbeating a population of 85 million into silence and passing laws that criminalize the expression of differing views are signs of a regime in deep decline that fears it has lost its legitimacy from the public. History shows that such gambits often backfire.