Flag of Iran

By Matt Wood

Freedom of speech is one of the most valued and cherished principles in a free society, and it is in a constant battle with oppressive  governments seeking to maintain the status-quo. When it comes to free speech in the world, Iran is rated the 175th freest country in regards to freedom of speech and freedom of the press out of 179 rated countries according to Reporters without Borders [13]. Reporters without Borders said that, “Hounding and humiliating journalists has been part of [Iran’s] officialdom’s political culture for years. The regime feeds on persecution of the media” [1]. Iran has a long history of violence and current history does not show signs of reversing. From barring students from education because of their political beliefs to opening fire on protesters and shutting down news publications, the Iranian government is working hard to chill free speech and silence the press.


The Islamic Republic of Iran, located in the Middle East between Iraq and Afghanistan, is a unitary Islamic republic with one legislative house. There are approximately 75 million people within the 636 thousand square miles of the Iranian border. Iran’s distinctive culture and society date back to 550 BC, and since has seen the rise and fall of many empires including the Sāmānids, the Safavids, the Qājārs, Pahlavis and the Shah [1]. But the transition of power didn’t stop there.

In 1951, the people of Iran democratically elected a leader named Mohammad Mosaddeq as a step toward democracy and a freer society. However, when he came to power he began to nationalize the oil fields of the country, which meant that British oil companies were being forced out, violently at times. Within that year, the United States Central Intelligence Agency, along with the British government and the Iranian military, led an overthrow of Mosaddeq and put the oppressive Shaw regime back into power to gain better access to Iran’s oil resources [2]. This transition of power was a major blow to the freedom of the Iranians and also for relations with the United States. In 2000, The New York Times quoted then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who said, “The coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development” [3]. It’s hard to say how much better Iran would be rated as far as free speech if the democratic government had not been overthrown by the CIA nearly 60 years ago, but it may have helped some.

It wasn’t until 1979 when anti-Shah and anti-American protests broke out that the Shah was toppled [2]. In 1989, a constitutional reform abolished the prime minister position in Iran and gave the president more powers. The current president is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has come under much fire from foreign nations and international groups because of suspicions of nuclear weapon development. Ahmadinejad is known for suppression of free speech as well as violating the general rights of the people, often times with violence. Human Rights Watch reported on recent violations against activists and a general suppression of free speech by “blocking Internet websites, slowing down Internet speeds, and jamming foreign satellite broadcasts” since the 2009 elections [4].


Protesters, activists and even journalists who challange the state do so at great risks. The anti-Internet-filtering group, Iran Proxy, said, “Today, in Iran, freedom of expression and, more importantly, freedom after expressing an idea, do not exist at all.” [9] However, they did go onto say that because of the Internet, more and more channels of expression are becoming available and that the “choking of free speech cannot survive and the environment will eventually open up.” This is good news to the people of Iran who are fighting against an oppressive regime that limits freedom and speech to an absolute minimum.

One of the keys to a free society is the ability to be able to actively protest your government to make change or at least have your voice heard. Unfortunately in Iran, that type of behavior can have dire consequences. In 2006, 17 students were prevented from completing their college degrees because of their “political activism and beliefs,” according to Human Rights Watch [11]. A total of 54 students were required to sign a pledge to observe political and ideological regulations.

One of the bloodiest violations of free speech in Iran was during the 2009 elections when security forces opened fire at a massive rally [17]. Tens of thousands of protesters defied a ban to protest President Mahmoud Amadinejad being declared the winner of the presidential elections. Security forces opened fire and left seven people dead and thousands of others injured from tear gas. The Guardian reported that this was the biggest rally in Iran since the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shaw. Protesting the wrong-doings of a government are essential to being able to make change, and freedom takes a major blow when that right is taken away with deadly force. However, the only positive that can come out of such a tragedy is that it can unite the people against a regime that they already oppose. The leader of the banned Freedom Movement, Ebrahim Yazd, said that the violence had “opened a Pandora’s box” and would only create more opposition to the current government. As late as 2011 there were mass protests because discontent with the Iranian authority [19].

Another blatant violation of freedom of speech is the case of Abdolfattah Soltani being arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison for his human rights activism [18]. Soltani, a lawyer, was sentenced for providing legal advice to political prisoners. The court said that he was charged with using “law as a tool and cover to commit … crimes.” Various human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, are demanding that Soltani “not spend a minute, let alone 18 years, in a prison…for acts directly related to his exercise of basic human rights.”

Whether it is students expressing their political beliefs, the mass public protesting election results or lawyers just doing their job, Iran’s government is set on maintaining its power by any means. These types of restrictions of free speech are diametrically opposed to what most consider to be a free society. Advancement in social freedom is all but impossible without the ability to protest or even speak your mind without the threat of being barred from an education or loss of life.


In the United States freedom of the press is held at the highest regard. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees these values, and Supreme Court has said that freedom of the press to play their role as watch dog of the government is essential to a free society [15]. In Iran, things are very different.

In 1998, Iran’s government shut down what TIME Magazine called “the most remarkable newspaper to appear in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.” [10] The paper only lasted for seven months before the Supreme Leader ordered the paper to stop, but in that short time, its readership soared to 300,000. The editor of the Tous, Mahmoud Shamsolvaezin, was imprisoned for the paper’s commentary on “political dissent, U.S. relations and the wisdom of a military confrontation with neighboring Afghanistan,” according to TIME Magazine. Unfortunately this was not the first or the last time for the Iranian government to imprison members of the media or shut down publications.

Another instance of censorship in Iran was in 2006 when Abbas Abdi, a former hostage-taker turned reformist, independently surveyed the Iranian people without the government’s approval. He was imprisoned when he published the results that showed that about 75% of the Iranian people favored relations with the United States [12]. The Iranian government charged Abdi “with ‘collaborat[ing] with U.S. elements and British intelligence’ and conducting ‘psychological warfare’ aimed at overthrowing the government,” according to the Washington Quarterly. Non-government sponsored polls are a rare allowance in Iran and this makes it very difficult to get a true understanding of public opinion. This becomes a major problem because the leaders in Iran are presumed to make their decisions “by consensus rather than decree [12],” but since there is virtually no independent polling, it is impossible to really know what the Iranian people want. Couple this with the history of tight restrictions on the press and you get a very silent and unaware public.

As of March 2012, Iran has 48 journalists currently detained, making it the third largest prison for the media in the world [5]. Some of those journalists have been arrested for covering the elections in Iran. The Iranian government has outlawed most non-governmental media from reporting on elections. An Iranian prosecutor for the government said that the weekly Hadiss Ghazvin was charged with “publishing false information with the aim of upsetting public opinion.” These claims were made against “photos of prisons, poverty, [and] executions” published in a newspaper. Most would think that those are the type of issues that are of the utmost importance to be published, but the government of Iran sees it as a crime punishable by imprisonment [5]. The Iranian government has also kept foreign media from entering the country to cover elections [5].

One of the most troubling issues with Iran’s treatment of journalists is the sentencing that has been handed out. There are several cases where journalists have been sentenced to death because of the content they publish. In 2012, Web Developer Saeed Malekpour, Website Administrator Ahmadreza Hashempour, and information technology student Vahud Asghari were all sentenced to death for producing Internet content tat the Iranian government found objectionable [16]. Another example is Mehdi Alizadeh who was arrested for satirical posts online and has been sentenced to death [6].

However, there is one example of a satirical online show that is available in Iran that has not been shut down by the government. Parazit is viewed by a million people per day in Iran and has been called “the Persian version of the Daily Show” by Public Radio International [7]. The online show makes fun of the Iranian government by uses images of Ahmadinejad and other prominent leaders in the Iran, and also offers an alternative view on the usual Iranian government run media. Although millions in Iran view the show, it is actually produced in the United States by the Voice of America, an organization that is funded by the United States Government [8]. This has Iranian officials claiming that VOA is a branch of the C.I.A. and it is “waging a soft cultural war to overthrow the government.” [7] With the history the C.I.A. overthrowing the Iranian government in the past, this seems very possible. [2] Whether or not Parazit is a “soft culture war” by the C.I.A. or not, it is still another voice besides the Iranian government-approved voice that the people of Iran are getting to hear.


When it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the United States wins hands down compared to Iran. Even though Reporters without Borders ranks the U.S. 47th on the “freedom index,” it obviously beats Iran’s 175th rating. In the U.S., citizens enjoy an incredible amount of freedom when it comes to what they can say and print. The Framers of the of the United States Constitution wrote the First Amendment to guarantee that Americans would be protected in their right to speak their mind, protest, and publish news even when it is controversial or goes against the government’s interest. Throughout history the government, local, state and federal, have challenged the people’s right to exercise free speech or free press, but since the 1900’s the Supreme Court has mostly sided with the citizens.

However, in Iran, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not so cherished by the government, as evidence by the earlier examples. In fact, the government appears to fear freedom of speech and of the press and has resorted to drastic measures to prevent the two. Take the student activists that were barred from being able to attend school and get an education because of their political views and expression of free speech. In the United States, there was a similar situation. In the Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines; several students in high school and in middle school were suspended from school because they wore black armbands protesting the Vietnam War. This is similar to the students in Iran being barred from attending school for their political views, but the difference is that the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the students stating that, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” [14] This is an instance of the Supreme Court confirming the importance of the citizens’, even minors, having the right to protest for political reasons, even when controversial.

The United States goes very far to protect the press from prosecution and censorship, whereas Iran does the exact opposite. Iran goes so far as to not only shut down publications but also has given out the death penalty for publishing materials that goes against the government’s interests. The case of New York Times v. United States was a historic case and a landmark victory for the freedom of the press. The case involved the publication of the “Pentagon Papers” by The New York Times and several other media outlets [15]. The papers published showed lies and cover-ups leading up to and during the Vietnam War with the purpose of getting into the war and also extending the war. The U.S. government ordered The New York Times and other publications to stop printing the papers, but the publications took the case to the Supreme Court and won. This victory ensured that journalists have the right and the duty to expose lies by the government in order to maintain an honest and democratic government. Some of the cases in Iran show the exact opposite: If you publish information that portrays the government in a negative way, you face dire consequences. An example of this degree of censorship and punishment of the press is when the publication Tous was shut down for writing about political dissent and other controversial issues. Another example is when Hadis Ghazvin was shut down for covering corruption in the elections in Iran.

The difference of freedom of speech and freedom of the press that Iranians and Americans enjoy are vast. In the United States, citizens can write just about anything they want and publish it for the whole world to see. In Iran, such acts would you get thrown in jail or even sentenced to death. In the U.S., citizens are free to protest their government and also assemble for very controversial issues. In Iran, this behavior has been met with violence and other punishment by the government. Iranian newspapers and online publications have been shut down for publishing information that the government finds unacceptable and students have been barred from getting an education for their political beliefs. Organizations such as Reporters Without Borders have rated Iran as one of the least free countries when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and Iran’s situation has not improved much in recent years.

However there is some hope for improvement in the rights of Iranians to speak their mind, and that hope is the Internet. Even though the Iranian government is working to censor the Internet and even shut it down, the Iranian citizens, especially the youth, are taking up the fight to liberate the people. Also, the Arab Spring that spread across much of the Middle East in 2011 and lead to the toppling of Egypt’s dictator might serve as an inspiration for the Iranian people.  With pressure from foreign nations and international organizations mounting, and the ever increasing access to the internet, Iranian citizens may see some improvement and hope in being able to access more of their inalienable rights.

One Response to Iran

  1. Dalia Saran says:

    There are many things wrong with this article relying on only English sources will result in BS instead of valuable scholarly article

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