“My life is not safe. It wasn’t safe when I was in Afghanistan and it isn’t even now that I am in [another country].” These words from a SAT-7 PARS viewer and journalist came in response to an episode of Insiders that explored the importance of press freedom.
The writer continued: “I work for an official online news site [for an ethnic minority] and if I was in Afghanistan I would not last a day. The people who have taken power do not believe in any humane principles at all – the right to freedom of expression doesn’t even cross their minds.”
Freedom of expression and freedom to information is one of the fundamental human rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It follows the article which protects the right to freedom of religion or belief. The latest season of the Persian language talk show, Insiders, has focused on many issues around freedom of belief.
The freedom to believe and to express one’s beliefs and opinions are closely related. Both are highly restricted in Iran and Afghanistan, and to different degrees in many other Middle East and North African countries. Nine currently appear in the bottom 20 of the 180 nations rated annually by Reporters Without Borders. Iran is ranked number 178 in the world.
According to the campaign organisation Article 19 (which takes its name from the UDHR), “There are no open countries in the Middle East and North Africa region”. It judges that 72 per cent of the population there live in countries where freedom of expression is “in crisis”, far more than any other region and twice the proportion it was in 2011.
Fred Petrossian, a Europe-based Iranian researcher and journalist, was a guest on Insiders. He explained to viewers why a press or media free from state control matters, describing them as a “pillar” of free societies alongside government and law.
He said, “In a sense, it is the power that holds other powers to account. Freedom of the press is related to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of belief. All these are indicators of how well-developed a society is.”
The societies of the ancient world in which the Bible itself is set were all far from modern democracies. But it is clear that God’s people had a deep responsibility towards them. “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which I have carried you into exile,” the Lord told Jeremiah. Micah 6:8 calls us to “practise justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God”. In the New Testament, 1 Timothy 2:1-4 urges us to “pray for all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way”. Being properly informed is vital to carrying out these responsibilities.
A recent article in the Turkish Christian magazine Miras Dergi (“Heritage Magazine”) stressed the importance of reliable information as it addressed believers who might be confused by misinformation and be uncertain how to respond to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It notes that “the internet has been buzzing with false reports, manipulated photos, and conspiracy theories”. In contrast, the writer says, “We should seek to be informed. We can’t be experts in every situation, but Christians also can’t afford to ignore the suffering of people in other parts of the world. Seeking to be informed is a minimum way that we can show empathy and compassion.”
Finding accurate information, however, is a challenge whenever authoritarian states seek to control the narrative.
Petrossian quoted Ayatollah Khomeini who said during his leadership: “Pens which did not write for Islamic values will be broken”. “You can see why dictatorial governments act [as they do],” Petrossian said. “It is precisely because they don’t want to be held to account that they take control of the media.”
Iran’s suppression of journalists, which began under the Shah even before the 1979 Iranian revolution, has continued. Meanwhile, the government itself has such “a vast collection of outlets – it is really quite amazing” Petrossian said.
A right to defend
He also expressed concerns about some trends in the West. “One trend beginning in the 1980s was the concentration of ownership of more media outlets by fewer people [leading to] less breadth in the spectrum of views presented and conflicts of interest because these people own other businesses.” A more recent threat, he said, was that “a single ideology” seems to dominate social media platforms so that other news and opinions are censored.
Asked if Christians in countries that do enjoy freedoms of expression and information should protect them Petrossian said, “Yes. It is always necessary to seek these freedoms that have come about but are not necessarily permanent and could be lost”.
From Iran, Insiders viewer Anousheh messaged to thank the programme for the discussion. “Unfortunately, we just don’t know about these kinds of topics. I am so glad that you have explored these issues that I personally was not aware of.”
Ask that journalists will always seek to report truthfully and ask God’s protection for them, including those who seek to serve minorities. Give thanks that satellite television and digital media has enabled the free sharing of the Gospel and Christian values to so many closed countries worldwide.