PHILADELPHIA – Despite significant restraints that can include arrests, detentions, and imprisonment, Iranian journalists strive to achieve high standards of journalistic professionalism, according to a new report published by the Iran Media Program at the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS), Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
The report, Facing Boundaries, Finding Freedom: An In-Depth Report on Iranian Journalists Working in Iran, is based on a field survey of 304 Iranian journalists from both state-run and independent media outlets. The survey offers the first systematic evidence of the working environment for Iranian journalists, including the level of editorial freedom they are able to exercise, their sources for newsgathering and reporting, and if and how they contend with Internet filtering and online censorship.
"Our aim was better understand how journalists in Iran operate amidst heavy state censorship, especially since the state's crackdown on journalists following the 2009 presidential election," according to Briar Smith, associate director of CGCS and director of the Iran Media Program. "Our findings show that both state and independent reporters in Iran strongly believe that their function is to inform and serve the public and to act as a 'check' against the government and political elites—even though in practice, they also recognize there are limits to their ability to fulfill their 'watchdog' role."
Smith, who co-authored the report with Magdalena Wojcieszak, Ph.D. (Gr '09), Associate Professor of Political Communication at the University of Amsterdam, and Amy Brouillette, visiting scholar at CGCS, said the report is especially timely given the state's more recent crackdown on print and online journalists during the June 2013 election.
"While the print media generally operate with far greater editorial freedom than Iran's heavily-controlled state broadcaster, Iran's print journalists came under intense government scrutiny and monitoring during the 2013 election season," according to the report. "The constraints placed on both reformist and conservative news outlets demonstrate the unpredictability of the regime's approach to both censoring and punishing media and journalists."
Key findings of the survey include:
Job Satisfaction and Perceptions of Editorial Freedoms
Most journalists surveyed said they were generally satisfied with their jobs. However, in the face of restrictions on content that is critical of Islam or government officials, or is seen as a threat to national security or public morals, the majority of journalists surveyed said they did not believe it was possible for reporters to pursue investigative stories without fear of consequences. Respondents were also pessimistic about the ability of journalists to independently question the government or investigate the government's activities, but most say they are able to present alternatives to government policies.
Advantages and Challenges of Being a Journalist in Iran
According to the survey, Iranian journalists most frequently cited having access to news and information and the ability to provide information to the public as advantages of their profession. The lack of editorial freedom and censorship (including self-censorship or "fear of publishing news") were cited as the main challenges for Iranian journalists, followed by financial and job insecurities.
Journalist Roles and Ethics
The survey found that Iranian journalists consider providing objective, fact-based reporting as their most important role. In addition, they adhere strongly to the idea of public-interest journalism and place high value on serving and representing the public rather than supporting political economic elites. Covering controversial and/or banned topics was seen as only slightly less important, although journalists still consider this to be among their more important obligations.
Newsgathering and Reporting Sources
Both state and independent journalists in Iran rely most heavily on Web search engines (Google, Yahoo) for newsgathering and reporting, followed by traditional sources (original interviews). Notably, the survey found that social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) are the least-used sources.
According to report authors, one of the more sensitive aspects of the survey was determining if and how journalists bypass filtered and blocked Web content with circumvention tools, which are illegal in Iran. The survey—which addressed this issue by asking a series of hypothetical questions—found that journalists regularly encounter blocked and filtered web sites but find accessing and using circumvention tools relatively easy. Importantly, journalists with state-owned media reported greater ability in finding and using circumvention tools than did independent journalists, according to the report.
Climate of Uncertainty Produces Chilling Effect
The Iranian regime's unpredictable and often inconsistent approach to censoring and punishing journalists has produced an additional "chilling effect" for Iranian journalists, the report concludes.
"Our findings verify that Iranian journalists operate within a media-restrictive environment with limited editorial freedom – especially with regard to conducting investigative reporting or covering topics that could be deemed critical of the state, government officials or Islam," according to the report. "Nevertheless, Iranian journalists strongly endorse the idea of public-interest journalism and believe that serving and representing the public against the government is among their most important roles."
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