BY ALI R. ZOHOORI
This paper stresses the importance of understanding the communication ethics of a non-Western culture as a contributing factor to the establishment of a set of universal codes of communication ethics. The paper reviews communication ethics in Iran by surveying: (1) the roots of ethics in Iranian culture from a theological perspective, which is positioned between deontological ethics and teleological ethics; and (2) the Zoroastrian and Islamic influences on Iranian communication. The paper also examines the historical and political reasons for the absence of professional ethics in the contemporary mass media in Iran.
Given the current global tensions over terrorism and ongoing conflicts in different parts of the world such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ethnic, tribal hostilities in Africa and the Middle East, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the US-Chinese trade standoff, and the influx of refugees seeking safety that extend from Africa to Latin America, the world is in need of knowledge and mutual understanding of shared and differing cultural and humanitarian ethics as the foundations of world views to assist a universal commitment toward human solidarity among all people. Since world views “are most clearly communicated in the public arena through religious language,” (Christians, Ferre, & Fackler, 1993, p. 190), we need to exploit the highest level of moral standards and dialogue to achieve such mutual understanding in order to realize global peace. Hence, ethics and communication become the profound driving force for reaching such an ambitious goal.
Understanding communication ethics in a global context is a complex and challenging task due to differences in belief and value systems that underlie such ethics. Additionally, a set of psychological, cultural, social, political, economic, and technological antecedents and intervening variables compounds any analysis of communication ethics in changing societies and presents challenges in establishing a world-wide code of communication ethics (Merril, 1989). Nevertheless, ethical principles of communication become a defining factor in how shared perceptions and common understandings are developed among cultures and nations to achieve meaningful and productive discourses toward mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.
To create cultural discourses at the international level, different nations and their respective communication systems need to identify a set of moral standards capable of transcending cultural and national differences. For example, Cooper (1990) identified the quest for truth, desire for responsibility, and compulsion for free expression as three “candidates ” for a universal ethics system. Cooper’s use of the term “candidates” rather than “universals” cleverly points out the complexity of finding shared perceptions of media ethics in an international context. However, Christians (1989) called for the development of “an ethics of universal solidarity” and argued for the emancipation of ethical theory from its parochial and nationalistic constraints “by recovering the notion of normativity as a necessary though insufficient condition of international ethics” (p. 19).
It is in the spirit of advancing such shared understanding and universal solidarity that this paper presents a survey of communication ethics in Iran and its relationship to contemporary Iranian mass media in order to contribute to the creation of a universal network of ethics and what Merrill (1989, p. 288) considered as “a sizeable ethical common ground existing around the world.” This paper presents evidence that the predominant system of communication ethics in Iran is based on the religious morality theory, but without a division between ethics and theology as practiced in Western Judeo-Christian societies.
As of this writing, there are neither codified media ethics practiced by Iranian media professionals nor conclusive research on communication ethics in Iran. However, there are governmental rules and policies based on Islamic dictums practiced irregularly and infrequently by media professionals, and there is a new recognized need for a systematic, collectively practiced, and professionally protected code of media ethics in Iran. The salient prevailing morality edicts for practicing media professionals are the ones pronounced by the religious authority that has deep roots in the moral psyche of Iranians as described in the following sections.
The Roots of Ethics in Iranian Culture
The world community knows today’s Iran as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The 1979 Islamic Revolution changed the political system of Iran from a 25-century monarchy to a religious-based republican system. The revolution also reaffirmed the officialdom of Shiite Islam which was first established by the Safavid Dynasty in 1501. The Safavid Dynasty based its government on a dual system of religion and monarchy. The subsequent ruling dynasties struggled to balance power between the two forces of Shiite clerics and the secular monarchs. The two Pahlavi Kings, the last of the monarchial rulers in Iran, moved the country in the direction of Western modernization at the expense of weakening the power of the religious sector in Iran. However, the religious foundation of the Iranian cultural identity preceded the introduction of Islam in Iran in the 7th century. This paper examines communication ethics in Iran in the light of theological moral standards, as intertwined with Iranian cultural identity, and positioned between deontological ethics, which ascribes to duty to principle and truth, and teleological ethics, where one’s action is judged by its consequence (Mieth, 1997). Whereas many religious doctrines attributed to the Supreme Divine are absolute and unbendable, when necessary theological ethics prescribe or proscribe certain actions based on their consequences.
Pre-Islamic Ethics in Iran
During the mid-600s BCE, Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) introduced the world’s first monotheistic religion in the plateau of Persia (Restgast, 1986). Mehr (1997) observed that “The Zoroastrian religion generated an intellectual, social, and material revolution in the land of Iran that forced people to abandon their polytheistic religious beliefs and migrant life-style and to establish urban settlements and a life-style based on hard-work, industriousness, and cooperation” (pp. 21-22).
Regarding ethical behavior of ancient Iranians, the Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, underscores three fundamental doctrines: good thoughts (hoomet), good words (hookhet), and good deeds ( hooresht) as the criteria for human salvation (Irani, 1975). According to Zoroastrianism, the benchmark for the goodness of thoughts, words, and deed, is Asha; which is the essence of the Zoroastrian religion and has been interpreted as the divine law of cause and effect, justice, honesty, dynamic evolution, order, and God’s will according to which everyone reaps what he/she has sown (Mehr, 1997, pp. 60-61).
According to the Avesta, Ahura Mazda (God) possesses four divine attributes of honesty and integrity (Asha Vahishta), good nature ( Vohumana), divine regency (xsathravairya), and the spirit of love and kindness (Spenta Armaiti) (Irani, 1975, pp 13-22). The followers of Zoroastrianism are required to endeavor to attain these divine attributes by following the three doctrines of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds in every moment of their lives. Hence, ancient Iranians rigorously made efforts to inculcate the three doctrines in their children; upholding their notoriety among other nations for their honesty, integrity, compulsion for justice, and spirituality. Herodotus (trans, 1862) and his contemporary historians have reported such traits among Iranians who also proscribed dishonesty, duplicity, disrespect, greed, and cruelty.
The introduction of Greek culture in ancient Iran took place during the Achaemenid Dynasty (550-330 B.C.) when Darius the Great expanded his empire to the Mediterranean Sea, followed by the conquest of Iran by Alexander the Great, and with pursuant military and cultural encounters in the region between the Persian and Greek civilizations. During the reigns of the Seleucids and Parthians in ancient Iran (320 B.C.-224 A.D.), some of the Greek ethical philosophies such as Aristotle’s principle of moderation and Platonic absolutes found their way into Iranian culture. By 224, a new Persian monarchy arose, the Sasanids, who established the first religion-based government system in pre-Islamic Iran with the monarchs and Zoroastrian magi sharing political and religious powers (Frye, 1963).
The Zoroastrian-Greek ethical thinking in pre-Islamic Iran manifested through books of guidance and admonishment targeted toward monarchs and their children. These books provided instructions, allegories (sometimes using animal characters), and warnings on the treatment of the common people, etiquettes of ruling a nation, and manners of intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships. Among the most famous of these books wereZoroaster’s Counsel, Khwaday Namag [Book of Lords], Khosro Ghobadan’s Advice, and The Counsels of Bozorgmehr. The main purposes of these books were to maintain a social equilibrium in the society, to remind those with power of their duty to justice and peace, and to promote spirituality among the nation (Ravandi, 1993).
The Muslim Arab invasion of Iran in the 7th century marked the end of the Sasanid Dynasty. Although it was the moral decadence among the Zoroastrian priests and the ineptness and brutality of the last Sasanid monarchs that forced Iranians to embrace Islam, the primordial mentality of Iranians induced their transition into the Islamic era and facilitated the juxtaposition and integration of Zoroastrian moral and ethical values with Islamic doctrines and principles. Since the dominance of Islam in Iran, Iranian history has witnessed several foreign invasions, the recurrent emergence and demise of small and large hereditary monarchies, the revival of the Farsi language in the 11th century, and centuries of despotism. Yet throughout this history, Iranians have continued to demonstrate their cultural resilience and adaptability in a paradox-laden culture of good and evil, peace and war, and pre-Islamic and Islamic systems of values, while maintaining their “primordial identity.”
As Mowlana (1989) pointed out, there is a dual system of Islamic ethical thinking and practices based on normative religious ethics and normative secular ethics. Among the sources of the former are the Quran, the paramount source of the Islamic faith, and the tradition (al sunna ) of the Prophet Mohammad and the Imams. The secular sources of ethics are comprised of advisement and counsel books and booklets, moral tales, and maxims. Muslims consider the Quran as the Word of God. The Quran contains divine messages of great significance to the life of a Muslim. According to Nasr (1966), the messages of the Quran are of three types: (1) doctrinal message; (2) historical narratives of peoples, prophets, kings, and their ordeals and calamities; and (3) a divine, metaphysically protective and generous quality (barakeh), which underlies the power of the Quran. The Quran prescribes a set of universal fundamental rights and moral norms for humanity as a whole comparable to the golden rule principle of ethics.
The core of the Quran is the requisite of the believer’s piety ( taqwa), his/her humbleness before the Creator, and his/her devotion to truthfulness, integrity, patience, steadfastness, control of passions and desires, and fulfillment of one’s promises. The underpinning ethical principle is tawhid, which stresses the unity of God, human, and nature. It is this unity and bondage between humans and God that forbids any dualism and discrimination and requires an exclusive servitude to God who is the only legitimate sovereign. Mowlana (1989) elaborated on the implication of this concept by stating:
Thus, all human-made laws and ethical codes that arrogate judgment to themselves, or to any authority or institution in any way other than in obedience or enforcement of “Allah’s Own Judgment,” are void. Therefore, all human-made laws, communication contents, mass media, and public forums that attempt to put restraints upon Allah’s sovereignty must be void (p. 141).
Another important ethical principle of Islam, which can potentially and directly regulate any mode of communication is the doctrine of amr be al-maruf va nahyan al monkar, or “commanding to the right and interdicting the wrong.” This doctrine holds individuals and social institutions responsible for the welfare of the society and renders ethics as a set of spiritual, religious, personal, and social conducts which can promote and sustain virtue and eradicate vice. It is within this ethical principle that such concepts like Holy Struggle (jihad) and martyrdom (shahadat) find divine values among Muslims who endeavor to reach their oneness with God (Mowlana, 1989).
Similar to the Zoroastrian view, the Quran views the human being as the vicegerent (khalifah) of God on earth with two dimensions of an earthly body and a divine spirit, hence a bipolar tension between a material desire and a struggle for spiritual exaltation. Such a tension denotes God’s recognition of a free will in humans, the highest sacred gift bestowed on humans by God. Therefore, it is up to human beings to choose between reaching their highest spiritual elevation by following the moral lessons and ethical doctrines of the Quran or pursuing their desires for worldly and material gratifications (Shariati, 1980).
A combination of Zoroastrian and Islamic moral values has dominated the Iranian psyche over many centuries and has manifested in the works of Iranian philosophers, religious thinkers, writers, poets, and scientists. These philosophical, religious, and literary works have exploited Persian mythology, Zoroastrianism and other pre-Islamic religious faiths such as Manichaeism and Mazdakism, Quranic verses, quotations from the Prophet Mohammad and the Shiite Twelve Imams (Saints), mystical narratives of Sufism, allegories, and folktales to communicate and promulgate ethics and morality in Iranian culture. The abundance of such ethical callings could be interpreted as a historical longing for justice, peace, respect, and mutual cooperation in a sea of ongoing political changes and despotism by foreign invasions and native rulers. The history of Iran has witnessed such moral struggle that produced rare rays of hope for transitory peaceful times often vanished with an absence of institutionalized ethical systems beyond the religious morality of individuals.
Individually, Iranians may have been able to define their cultural identity after facing their bipolar distinctiveness of being an Iranian and a Muslim. But as a collective organism, Iranian culture has been dominated by a despotic patriarchy where individuals have lost their powers once they have become part of the collective group or nation subjugated to the will of their political and religious leaders (father-figures). This has resulted in a paradoxical cultural identity in Iranians as a social group who are both individualistic and collectivistic in their manners. Such a paradox in Iranian cultural identity has been further augmented by Iranians’ struggle to find a balance between their collective cultural identity and their collective Islamic moral psyche, and has negatively affected their views and practices of ethics and moral values on a societal level.
Iran has been a cultural crossroad between East and West by virtue of its geographical location, which has also created a tension in its cultural stability. On the one hand, Iran has continuously strove to maintain its historical Persian identity despite its openness to external influences. On the other hand, Iranians have been continuously engaged in assimilating elements of the invaders’ cultural heritages and redefined their cultural identity accordingly. This cultural tension further explains the inconsistency of ethical considerations at a macro level in Iran. It is against this historical review of ethics in Iran that one can notice the power of religious morality as a sustaining force in Iranians’ daily lives, including their communication behaviors.
Communication Ethics in an Islamic Context
Islam considers communication as a valued function, both symbolically and practically. God revealed his Word to the Prophet Mohammed through the Archangel Gabriel who told the Prophet, “Recite.” Therefore, the Quran as the supreme symbol of revelation of the Divine Message to the Prophet and its very first word of “recite” signify the importance of communication among Muslims (Nasr, p. 42). Further, Islam insists on rational thinking and reasoning as the core of communication. Islam is a faith that stresses belief in God by reasoning. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a 19th-century Persian religious reformer, once stated that, “Islam is almost alone among the religions of the world in addressing itself to man’s reason, and demanding that he should accept religious belief only upon the grounds of convincing argument and not mere claim and supposition” (Adams, 1933, p. 16). Islam’s emphasis on beliefs and moral standards grounded in reasoning corresponds with Kant’s absolutist ethics and categorical imperatives where “A categorical duty is one that, regardless of your particular desire, you would do. These categorical ‘oughts’ bind rational people simply because they are rational” (Merrill, 1999, p. 17).
The Quran provides numerous suggestions and instructions on the value of communication as a centripetal force of spiritual and social relationships and as a key to knowledge and enlightenment. For example, “Allah, it is who hath revealed the word with Truth and the Balance” (62:17), signifies the Quranic values of truth and balance in communication. The Quran warns against lying and deception (2:11 and 42) and promotes fairness in speaking (6:152). According to the Quran, news is a truth undistorted by intentional inaccuracy (2:42). Further, The Quran refers to the Prophet Mohammed and other monotheistic prophets as “news bearers” whose messages are God’s Revelation, and, therefore, expects Muslims to practice honesty in transmitting news and information to others. Hence, the Quran warns the believers to investigate their information before sharing it with others to make sure that no harm is inflicted upon others and no regret is needed for such action (49:6). The Quran strongly disapproves of spreading rumors, using harmful language, and intruding into the private affairs of others (49:11 and 12). In general, the teachings of the Quran and the Islamic view on communication resembles the Zoroastrian doctrines of good thoughts, good words, good deeds, and bidding virtue and light while forbidding vice and darkness.
Islam has promoted communication in both oral and written modes. The Prophet and Imams through their sayings (Hadith) and doings ( Sunna) and the Islamic theologians and scholars through the tradition of sustained discussion (kalam) have reinforced Islamic ethics (Mowlana, 1989). Through kalam, Shiite Islam has promoted debate and discussion of philosophical, religious, moral, and scientific topics in an egalitarian fashion. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, a 12th-century influential Persian philosopher, in his “Ten Rules of Polite Disputation,” elaborated on the importance of discussions among the learned men, and pointed out on the rules of brevity, elaboration, word usage, repetition, avoidance of double meanings, sensibility, and high-esteem for an antagonist (Donaldson, 1963, pp. 168-169). As such, Islam has recognized the values of social discourse in support of its moral principles.
Communication Ethics in Contemporary Iran
To better understand communication ethics in contemporary Iran, one should examine the development and practices of the Iranian mass communication media. Mirza Saleh Shirazi published the first Iranian newspaper in Tehran in 1833 with the support and encouragement of a Qajar crowned prince (Sadre-Hashemi, 1985). Other mass media such as movies, radio, and television also found their way into Iranian society by the initiatives of the government and political elites who have been exposed to Western mass media. An absence of democracy, a heavy-handed government-controlled broadcasting system, a commercialized and politically neutered movie industry, and irregular and fleeting opportunities for a free press with an overarching secular and Western orientation characterized the Iranian mass media in its 140-year life prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Iranian mass media set its priorities to survive two forces: (1) a tyrannical political system and the despotic regimes of Qajar and Pahlavi, and (2) a religious campaign against the Western and secular orientation of the media.
An assessment of the Iranian media performance indicates that the Iranian press focused most of its efforts on struggling for freedom of the press and trying to survive government control and censorship instead of integrating its secular orientation with Islamic moral principles. It appears that the Iranian media could not or did not wish to pursue a system of media ethics similar to those practiced in the Western world since the Iranian media were deprived of their basic right to a free press as a prerequisite for a media ethics system. Thus, political realities undermined ethical considerations in a media system plagued by government suppression, self-imposed censorship, commercial competition, hostile religious attitudes, and a lack of professional standards (Zakerhossein, 1989).
It should be added that a lack of professional standards is also correlated with a weak journalism education in Iran. The year 1940 marked the establishment of a center for teaching journalism within the Organization of Nourishment of Thoughts, which was a propaganda unit of the Pahlavi government. Up to that point, Iranian journalism was based on a combination of personal interest, political motive, and informal training. Eventually, the first baccalaureate program in journalism was established at Tehran University in 1966 and was followed by another comparable program at the College of Social Communication Sciences in 1967. The Islamic Open University also established a baccalaureate program in social sciences with a track in communications in 1987. By one estimate, in 1994 less than one percent of Iranian journalists had a college degree in journalism education (Mohsenian-Rad, 1994).
Although the Iranian press played an important political role in the modern historical events of the 1906 Constitutional Reform, the 1951 nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian religious leaders criticized the Iranian media for its lack of religious moral orientation, and argued that “the media were pernicious and corrupting, eroding indigenous identity and part and parcel of the continuing dependency of Iran on the West” (Sreberny-Mohammadi & Mohammadi, 1994, p. 16). Such an anti-West attitude has prevailed within the current government and used to depress the work of Iranian journalists regarding the freedom of the press.
In pre-Islamic revolution Iran, most newspapers, magazines, radio and television programs, and movies were modeled after Western standards of commercialism. Consequently, a fascination with Western modernization and implicit anti-religious government policies de-emphasized the necessity of Islamic moral standards in the Iranian media.
The coming of Islamic revolution and replacement of the monarchy with the theocracy in Iran reoriented the mission and practice of the Iranian media toward a religious direction. This was followed by a brief period of media freedom, while the Islamic clerics solidified their footholds in sensitive governmental branches and institutions, including the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the two prominent daily newspapers of Kayhan and Etelaat, and the Iranian broadcasting networks. Soon Ayatollah Khomeini’s declaration of proper Islamic emphasis in the Iranian media imposed restrictions on the media in order to preserve the Islamic revolution. The eight-year Iran-Iraq war compounded the restrictions imposed by the government on the Iranian media for more than a decade. Many of the governmental policies regarding the conduct of the Iranian media were put into effect in the early 1980s while the Iran-Iraq war continued.
According to a 1982 law of radio and television broadcasting, the mission and policies of the Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran (VVIRI) were defined in nine chapters dealing with news, religious, cultural, social, political, economic, administrative, and military programming and affairs. The leading policy for the Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic was characterized by the law which stated,
The mass media (radio and television) must be positioned in alliance with the developmental direction of the Islamic revolution and in support of disseminating the Islamic culture, and the mass media should benefit from a healthy discourse of diverse thoughts, and should seriously refrain from spreading and promoting destructive and anti-Islamic habits and practices (The Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 1982, p. 4).
Several ethical requirements are covered in the law of which the following exemplify the Islamic ethics discussed in the preceding sections:
Article 1: The sovereignty of Islam should be the base for all programs, and broadcast of any program contradicting the Islamic criteria is forbidden.
Article 6: Valuing the human dignity of the public and refraining from libel and slander are in line with the Islamic criteria and must be observed.
Article 8: The mission of the Voice and Vision should enhance the unity, kindness, and integration of the society and warn people against discord and disintegration.
Article 19: The following issues cannot be broadcast in all kinds of programs, particularly in news: (a) any military, political, and economic secret which can be abused by the enemy; (b) any slanderous charge directed toward government organizations and groups or parties whose activities are legally permitted by law; (c) broadcast of any program which results in the corruption of the moral values and dishonoring of the society; (d) broadcast of any program which can damage the religious sensitivity and national unity of the society and lead to tension among people (Voice and Vision of Islamic Republic of Iran, 1982, pp. 7-9).
The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), originally established in 1934 by the Pahlavi regime as Pars Agency, has defined its new mission as one inspired by the Prophet Mohammad’s mission of saving people from their ignorance by sharing the Word of God. Therefore, an Islamic news agency is responsible to protect its audiences from an atmosphere of falsified news and rumors by presenting them with fully objective and truthful information. As the Prophet was a just and mindful witness to his followers, an Islamic news organization must be watchful of the current affairs and endeavor to report them accurately, objectively, and fairly in order to reinforce Islamic justice in society (Islamic Republic News Agency, 1982, pp.7-10).
Furthermore, The Islamic Republic News Agency’s news policy is based on two principles. The first principle is the freedom of news reporting without any distortion and according to the principles and criteria of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In this context, dissemination of any news that can endanger the interests of the Islamic revolution and its continuity is forbidden. The second principle is the independence of news reporting from any individual’s or group’s interests, and only fulfilling the interests of the Islamic revolution instead of satisfying the interests of any particular individual or group (Islamic Republic News Agency, 1982, p.10).
Following Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran, the Iranian cinema experienced a 180-degree identity change from a commercial movie industry producing low taste and mass-appeal movies, with a handful of exceptions, to an Islamic and revolutionary-oriented film industry. The new identity brought with it a ban on showing any anti-Islamic subject, wickedness, corruption, prostitution, or disturbing scenes of violence. However, the Iran-Iraq war introduced another dimension to the new Iranian cinema: a war cinema filled with patriotic and violent images of the battlefields and Islamic martyrdom.
The Islamic Republic government quickly recognized the powerful communication effect of movie visuals and their vast potential for propagating Islamic ideas and values. Training centers were established for future film makers and the government took control of the film industry in Iran under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Farabi Cinema Foundation (FCF), which is engaged in a vertical integration of all aspects of producing, marketing, promotion, and distribution of movies inside and outside of Iran.
A handful of Iranian intellectual film directors of the pre-Islamic revolution and a group of post-Islamic revolution trained film makers (men and women) have been responsible for a new Iranian cinema, which has been recognized in prestigious international film festivals. They have presented a new school of film identified by a certain Islamic code of ethics and a taste of Italian neorealism cinema. In her observation of Iranian cinema, Sciolino (2000) commented, “But since the 1980s, the Iranian cinema has quietly emerged as another public space in which the tensions, restrictions, grim reality, and simple pleasure of everyday life are laid out for all to see” (p. 260).
Whereas the radio, television, and cinema have been more under the direct control of the Islamic Republic government, the Iranian press has undergone different stages of government control since the inception of the Islamic revolution. Currently, the Iranian press is controlled by the government and therefore it fully adheres to the revolutionary and religious values imposed by the government.
All 1,200 newspapers, magazines, and journals published in Iran are subject to governmental approval before receiving publication licenses, and are therefore vulnerable to censorship, revocation of licenses, and/or imprisonment and fines. Although the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran does not explicitly address the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press, Chapter 24 of the Constitution states that, “The press is free, unless its activities contradict the Islamic principles or the rights of the public” (Moghadam-Far, 1990, p. 4).
According to Shyakh (1996), there exists no codes of journalistic ethics in most Islamic countries due to the lack of support from Islamic governments, disinterest in such codes among Muslim journalists, and the absence of support in the Muslim community and its Muslim researchers. Shyakh argued that part of Muslim journalists’ disinterest in codes of journalistic ethics is based on the absence of freedom of speech in Muslim societies. Therefore, the absence of a journalistic code of ethics is not unique in the Islamic Iran.
However, the officials of the Islamic Republic have defined a set of ethical responsibilities for the Iranian press within the country’s general constitution and governmental edicts. In his 1995 meeting with Iranian press officials, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, identified the responsibilities of the press in Islamic Iran in the following order:
To inform the society and to enlighten the masses so they can become insightful, to increase the people’s level of education in different disciplines, to enhance people’s analytical skills in political affairs by providing political commentaries and editorials so people can develop independent political opinions and become less vulnerable to the manipulation of the foreign press, and to preserve and enrich the national unity by promoting self-confidence in the nation. Those publications that fall short of meeting the above responsibilities are considered as degenerate and immoral (Deputy for the Journalism and Propagation Affairs, Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, 1995, pp. 8-12).
In meeting the above responsibilities, Iranian journalists and writers have faced a number of professional, political, and social obstacles that render them incapable of fulfilling such government-imposed ethical guidelines. A 1995 report by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance summarized these obstacles in the following words:
Today, we cannot merely blame the lack of access to and full utilization of communication technology hardware or the quality and limits of legal jurisdiction over the press for the underdeveloped status of the country’s press. We need to point out other important causes for the underdeveloped press, such as the shortage of an expert workforce, weaknesses of journalism education, undermining of the identity and autonomy of journalists, the press’s lack of consciousness of its crucial mission, an absence of appropriate audience analysis and their communication needs and demands, an inadequate knowledge of the social effects of communication, and a lack of proper definition and explanation of journalists’ and columnists’ social status and responsibilities. (Deputy for the Journalism and Propagation Affairs, Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, 1995).
A survey of 315 Iranian journalists by Mohsenian-Rad (1994) confirmed some of the above observations: 94 percent of the respondents felt that Iranian journalists were hardly respected as professionals by the society; the journalists had to beg for news when covering government affairs; and a lack of respect, poor pay, and poor employment benefits forced the journalists to forsake their ethical and social responsibilities. This survey also depicted the quality of the Iranian press as being plagued by cliché news, lack of creativity, self-imposed censorship, shortage of educated journalists, commercialism, partisanship, ignorance of real social problems, and lack of familiarity with the needs of readers. Interestingly, in the same survey when the respondents were asked to identify and prioritize five courses needed for journalism education in Iran, the respondents never mentioned a course in journalism ethics.
In an interview with a group of Iranian journalists, Rastegar (1996) researched the topic of ethics and journalism in Iran. The interviewees believed that before considering professional media ethics, they needed to establish a set of laws scrupulously governing the press and its freedom and responsibility. They stated that without freedom, the press could not gain respect from the public or the government. They commented that there was no definition of ethics in the Iranian media (pp. 8-10).
In the same vain, in an opinion survey of Iranian journalists regarding their view on the libertarian, authoritarian, Communist, social responsibility, and developmental systems of the press as elaborated by Siebert, Peterson, & Schramm (1956) and the MacBride Commission (United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization, 1980), the respondents flatly rejected the authoritarian, Communist, and developmental systems, and approved of the social responsibility perspective in accordance with Islamic and revolutionary values and norms permeated by the Quran and Islam (Broojerdi-Alavi, 1997).
Iranian journalists have begun to recognize the need for journalism ethics in Iran and have initiated dialogues among themselves, with the Islamic Republic government, and with international journalists to explore the possibility of establishing a code of media ethics in Iran. In response, the government’s Center for Mass Media Studies and Research recently hosted a conference of Islamic journalists in Tehran to clarify and assess journalism ethics and responsibilities in a religious framework. The conference reaffirmed the Islamic doctrines of tawhid (the unity of God, humankind, and nature) and amr be al-maruf va nahyan al monkar (commanding to the right and interdicting the wrong) as the fundamental principles of journalism ethics for Muslim journalists. Further, the conference emphasized Muslim journalists’ professional safety and autonomy as prerequisites for their practice of professional ethics (Shimrani, 1997). According to an Iranian expert in media law and ethics, several attempts in establishing a code of media ethics which bridges Islamic ethical mandates and modern professional ethics have failed despite being highly desirable (Ismaeli, 2007).
This article provided a review of communication ethics in Iran by presenting: (a) the roots of ethics in Iranian culture; (b) the Zoroastrian and Islamic views on communication as a means for reaching harmonious relationships with self, others, and God; and (c) a review of media ethics in contemporary Iran. As pointed out, both the Zoroastrian beliefs and Islamic viewpoints relative to ethical principles fall between deontological ethics with an absolutist orientation, where a set of universal laws guides human conduct (i.e., communication) under the auspices of religious authority, and teleological ethics with a consequence orientation (Merrill, 1999).
The review of contemporary Iranian mass media revealed that a need for a professional system of media ethics in Iran never manifested due to: (1) the absence of freedom of expression and the absence of a free mass media, and (2) a negative attitude among the religious sector of Iranian society toward the secular orientation of the pre-Islamic revolution media. For a short period during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), a new political reformist movement in Iran helped Iranian media, particularly the Iranian press, “to push the limits of expression and debate, sometimes in the face of outright opposition and always in defiance of their own fears” (Sciolino, 2000, p. 250). Notwithstanding the Islamic Republic government’s imposition of the religious and revolutionary restrictive codes of conduct on Iranian media, the resilient character of Iranians, polished through centuries of dealing with a dualistic culture frequently invaded and manipulated by external powers and alien cultures, has helped Iranian media professionals learn how to survive in a fluid world of changing rules and restrictions in the Islamic Iran.
Currently, Iranian media professionals follow the religious moral guidelines imposed by the government, but they also use their own individual standards of right and wrong in performing their professional tasks. When there are conflicts between the two, Iranian media professionals have to conform to the religious moral guidelines rather than embrace seizure and punishment. Reflecting on the recent efforts of Iranian media professionals, there are some indications that they are striving to gain their rights to a free press and to win a respectful social status in a transforming Iranian society. However, the current tension between the reformists and the conservatives within the government will be a defining factor in balancing the power struggle and any possible movement toward a free media and consequently an establishment of a professional code of media ethics, which will embody orientations toward the freedom and social responsibilities of media and media professionals in Iran.
Through an exploratory effort, this paper presented a brief survey of communication ethics and mass media in Iran. It is hoped that this information will contribute to a better understanding of communication in Iran and will generate an international support for Iranian media professionals’ recent efforts to establish a professional code of media ethics in Iran. It now rests with those members of the world community, including media professionals and governments interested in enhancing the chance for global peace and stability to push forward for a set of international code of media ethics which promotes universal human solidarity.
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