Moderation of Iran’s Online Media Landscape

This post was written by ASL 19 and is cross-posted with Herdict.

New websites emerge, and moderates and reformists become active online

Since the June 14 presidential elections, a number of new, more moderate Iranian news and analysis sites have launched, and we’ve seen a resurgence in activity on many existing reformist websites.

Following the election of Hassan Rouhani, Omid, Ayandeh Online, Rooz-e No, Khordad News, Bahar News,Tadbir 24, Salam-e No, and Faryadgar all emerged.  These sites are all politically moderate and have close ties to Rouhani and the reformist camp.

Two existing sites, Aftab and Puyesh, have also stepped up their activities since the formation of the 11th government. The emergence of these sites may be seen as the liberalization of Iran’s online media landscape, following a long period in which conservatives dominated Iran’s media landscape. Whether these sites thrive over the coming weeks and months remains to be seen.  Herdict will be tracking the accessibility of these sites here:

This blog post examines these new sites, and assesses what it may mean for online news in Iran over the coming years.

A brief summary of moderate and reformist websites

Aftab, the website closest to the Iranian President, was founded in 2003 when, with Hassan Rouhani as the Secretary of Supreme National Security Council, debate over Iran’s nuclear program first surfaced. Aftab’s offices were initially located at the Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research, which Rouhani has led since 1992.

Aftab cut back on its publications during the post-2009 election unrest, shutting down its publications for a week following protests on June 12th.  But now it is now considered the website with the closest relationship to the head of the Iranian government.

Puyesh belongs to the youth branch of Islamic Labour Party, a party with ties to reformist politicians. In addition to news, Puyesh publishes research and analysis on social change in Iran. Ali Rabiee, one of the party founders, serves as the managing editor of Puyesh and is the Minister of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare.  Previously, Rabiee served as a deputy to Rouhani at the Supreme National Security Council. Rabiee was famously involved in the committee that former president Mohammad Khatami formed to investigate the ‘chain murders’ case, involving the deaths of notable liberal intellectuals, writers, journalists, and activists who were critical of the government in some way.  Two years ago, Puyesh began at and focused only on news related to the Islamic Labour Party.  But prior to the election it moved to and begun covering a wider range of news.

Omid was launched during the recent presidential elections by the office of Mohammad Reza Aref, a 2013 presidential candidate, and has continued its activities since then. Omid’s publications are considered reformist in nature.

Ayandeh Online is one of the websites established by the media team associated with Hashemi Rafsanjani in the months prior to the recent elections. Two of the site’s network administrators were arrested a day before the official launch of Ayandeh Online. Foad Sadeghi and Ali Ghazali, former administrators for Baztab Emrooz and Ayandeh, were released after Rafsanjani was disqualified as a presidential candidate.

While Foad Sadeghi initially worked for Baztab, a news source closely aligned with presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei, conflicts within the fundamentalist party caused him to lean toward more moderate candidates and Hashemi Rafsanjani in particular.

Like their previous news organizations, Ayandeh Online often exposes incidents of financial corruption among top conservative figures. The website was filtered in Iran throughout the election, however users have experienced unfiltered access to this website since that time.

Rooz-e No is another site close to Rouhani’s administration, which in addition to news and social events, publishes unofficial reports on government decisions. This website was launched upon Rouhani’s election.

Faryadgar is affiliated with the Mardomsalari Party and is managed by Mirza Baba Motaharinejad, a member of the party’s core committee. The Mardomsalari Party believes in “minimized reforms,” and was a supporter of Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009. The website’s associated newspaper, Mardomsalari Newspaper, stopped publishing news related to Mousavi and Karroubi after authorities ordered aggressive guidelines during 2009 unrest. This website was launched in the days leading up to the 2013 election.

Bahar News is managed by Mansoor Ghanavati, and was a supporter of Mohammad Reza Aref throughout the 2013 election. Ghanavati, a known figure in Iran’s cultural domain, is also the manager and chief editor of Karoon newspaper. Bahar News takes a moderate reformist approach to the news.

Tadbir 24 was launched before the elections and is currently working closely with Rouhani’s government. Tadbir 24 aims to “display [political] moderation in the realm of media and cyberspace as the fourth principle of democracy.” Tadbir 24 has adopted a supportive and “hopeful” approach when publishing news related to Rouhani’s government.

Salam-e No is run by a number of reformist media activists, and according to its website follows “a moderate approach, away from extremists.” This website was launched after the elections.

Change of media landscape in favor of moderates

When the 11th government formed in recent months, moderates took over government websites, including not only those of government ministries and affiliated organizations, but more importantly the official website of theIranian president and that of the government. In addition, the directors of both official government news agencies, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) and the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), have been jointly appointed by Rouhani’s Minister of Culture and Minister of Science. As a result, IRNA and ISNA have become more moderate in tone and direction.

This editorial shift in Iran’s online media ecosystem is particularly salient given that reformist websites were heavily targeted following the 2009 presidential elections. At that time, almost all sites close to and affiliated with reformists figures, including Ghalam, Kaleme, Jomhouriyet, Norouz, and Emrooz, were attacked by government security forces and intelligence agencies. In some cases these sources were filtered, in other cases journalists and staff were arrested. Some of those journalists are still imprisoned or out on temporary release.

From 2001 to 2009 the online media landscape had a strong, albeit restricted, reformist presence. During this period, Iran’s Internet “Blogistan,” which grew until crackdowns and filtering began in 2009.  Starting in 2009, security and intelligence bodies ended the competition between the reformist and conservative media in favor of conservatives through what reformists called an “electoral coup d’etat.”

Four years after the disputed 2009 election, individuals and media teams affiliated with Mohammad Khatami, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Mehdi Karroubi are still prohibited from establishing websites in Iran. While the landscape has become more open for moderate and reformist media outlets, conservative media still exists in Iran. The new administration faces a delicate balancing act of finding consensus between reformists, moderates, and conservatives. The conservatives, often associated with the Supreme Leader, will always have a dominant presence within Iran’s media landscape. Iran’s Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content operates under the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, with a membership appointed by the office of the Supreme Leader. Despite conservatives’ strong influence over the media, it seems that sites close to Mohammad Reza Aref and Hassan Rouhani are gradually making inroads in the online media space.