The Iranian government has finally passed a supplement to its existing press and journalism law. The supplement, proposed by the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, is intended to manage how local news agencies operate under chapter 5 of the law, which is comprised of 13 articles. The move triggered a number of reactions in the media and academia against the restrictions imposed by this new legislation on journalistic conduct in news agencies.
Article 38 of the supplement stipulates that journalists working for news agencies should reveal the "source of information" in every published news report. It also prevents journalists from using terms such as "sources," "well-informed sources," "close sources," "sources who spoke on condition of anonymity," "parliamentary sources," or "political sources," etc. Article 40 prohibits news agencies from publishing news reports, discussing topics, or disseminating multimedia that had previously led to the closure or suspension of a media platform, or were responsible for banning another newspaper or news agency from publishing.
The main reason for this wave of criticism is perhaps that news agencies often promise their sources not to reveal their identities, but they will be forced to do so under this new legislation. However, preventing news agencies from publishing news reports, photos and discussing certain topics could result in their immediate closure before they even go to court, which contradicts the law because there would be no evidence of a journalistic crime. The government is now facing a legal dilemma for passing legislation that is not within its jurisdiction. The Iranian law on press and publications was initially passed by the Shura Council, which has the authority to pass such laws. The government itself does not have the right to pass laws; it is only responsible for implementing them.
More significantly, Iran's Fars News Agency, which was against the government's decision, threatened to file a legal complaint to the court of administrative justice and demanded that this law, which "contradicts both the press law and the constitution," be annulled. Fars confirmed that it is determined to file a complaint to the aforementioned court.
Media expert Taki Dazakam urged journalists and employees at the news agencies to disobey a law "that has no parallel in the world, and forces news agencies to expose their sources of information." He said that the law should differentiate between media platforms and news agencies "because news agencies protect their sources of information, while media platforms are mainly concerned with their audience. For this reason, it is more feasible to ask media outlets to reveal their sources of information. Asking news agencies to do the same is unjustifiable and it limits their performance.”
There are at least 21 news agencies operating in Iran, in addition to hundreds of variously-affiliated websites that also focus on publishing news reports. The Iranian press operates under the 1985 Law of Publications. This law was amended on April 18, 2000, and was redrafted on November 29, 2009.
It is worth noting that the recent reform law targets all electronic publications, including news and political websites as well as media platforms and news agencies.
Journalist Kambeez Noroozi said that the executive branch does not have the right to pass laws or to force news agencies to reveal their sources of information, "which is considered an element of professionalism on behalf of the news agencies. The news agency should be the one that decides to reveal the source of information if the name adds value to the report. It also has the right to refrain from revealing the source, either because the source spoke on condition of anonymity or because it is trying to write and publish the report in a specific way."
Noroozi said that forcing electronic publications to abide by this law is an "arbitrary measure" because most of these publications do not fall within a news-agency framework. Furthermore, the law limits the capabilities of news agencies and opens the door for foreign news agencies to operate freely in Iran.
He added, "Those responsible for this amendment are ignorant of the modern age of communication and the principles of new media."
Regarding the clause that prevents news agencies from publishing photos, news reports or discussing certain topics that might lead to the closure or suspension of a newspaper or news agency, Noroozi said that this article contradicts Article 4 of the publications law, which prohibits any government or non-government official from pressuring a publication to scrutinize its conduct.
At the same time, a number of journalists defended the government's latest amendment. Ghulam Hussain Islami Far, editor-in-chief of Iran newspaper, a publication affiliated with the Islamic Republic News Agency [IRNA], said that "a news report becomes important based on its credibility, and it also grants credibility to the newspaper publishing the report. This will help the readers believe the report without misleading them because they know the source of information, and this enhances the credibility of the news report."
Far added, "Those who want to confront public opinion should be armed with credibility. Stating the sources of information is a way of achieving credibility, a quality that must be present in publications and news agencies." He said that revealing the source of information is considered one of the most basic principles of journalism.
Noroozi believes that "revealing the source of the news report prevents the spread of lies in the press and media, and motivates the media to accomplish the noble goals of journalism."
Dr. Ali Asghar Kaya, associate dean of the Faculty of Information at Scholar Tabtabai University, underlines the importance of revealing the source of news reports, and says that the government has the right to force news agencies to release the names of their sources because that "gives credibility to the report, pushes the reader to relate to the news report, and influences the target audience. Revealing the source of information does not contradict the freedom of the press."
Mahmoud Dahqan, a member of the Scientific Committee of the Faculty of Radio and TV, says that publishing a report without revealing the source of its information is no different than spreading lies and rumors. "The new reform law is not directed at different websites; it is designed to organize the conduct of news agencies,” he argued.
Dahqan defended the recent government measure and stated that "it will guarantee that the audience following the news reports are being treated honestly.” He said that the fact that the government is keeping a close eye on news agencies "is a phenomenon present worldwide. There are also special courts designed to deal with journalistic offenses."
University professor Mohammad Sultani Far says that "this measure protects journalists’ rights and helps strengthen the trust of those reading the reports. It allows this profession to gain more credibility."
What is remarkable during this ongoing controversy in Iran is that the journalists working for conservative and extremist media outlets showed the most enthusiasm for cancelling articles with secretive sources of information, and they called for more openness in electronic publications. Meanwhile, academics sought to legalize the journalistic practice of protecting sources. The journalists who are part of the reform movement supported those who believe in the freedom of press and who oppose restrictions that limit the press, whether they are media platforms or news agencies.