Paper Prices and Unintended Consequences: How Sanctions Have Limited Access to Independent Publications in Iran
The Iran Media Program and ASL19 investigate unintended consequences of recent sanctions against Iran.
It is increasingly difficult for independent publishers of books and print newspapers in Iran: The problem this time is not strict censorship, but the skyrocketing price of paper. Iran has reduced subsidies for imported paper, placing a stranglehold on an industry that relies heavily on paper’s import. The devaluation of almost 50% of the Iranian Rial compared to the US dollar and other major currencies has further made the import of paper from abroad exorbitant.
Under such conditions, President Ahmadinejad’s administration has been selective in financially supporting publishers and newspapers close to the government. Independent publishers and any publication that is critical of the government have been left to deal with this crisis on their own. As a result, some publishers have closed down, while some have reduced their circulation and publication schedules. Those with access to alternative sources of funding have decided to import paper, regardless of high prices, to keep their publication going.
Iranian publishers of books and newspapers can be divided into three groups. The first group is independent (or private). Their content is not directly related to or aligned with state policies or mandates. Western novels, magazines discussing secular ideas, or newspapers allied with reformists are often the focus of these publishers.
This group has been hit the hardest by the recent crisis of paper. They receive almost no support from President Ahmadinejad’s administration, which controls subsidies to import and distribute paper. They are also not affiliated with other government or religious bodies that often provide publishers with financial support. As such, they have to rely on the profit made from sales of their publications.
According to Kalemeh news site, about 100 independent publishers have gone bankrupt and shut their activities as a result of the recent crisis. Some other private publishers have increased their prices and limited the copies of their books, magazines, and newspapers. Iranian Student’s News Agency (ISNA) has disclosed that publishers print about only 500 copies of their books to cope with the increasing price of paper. This crisis has further limited access to independent print media that was already difficult enough to obtain beforehand with censorship alone.
The second group of publishers are those within the governing system but who are more critical of President Ahmadinejad’s administration. This group receives support from other governing bodies or religious funds not controlled by Ahmadinejad’s administration. These publishers are mainly affiliated with principalists or conservative groups. They do not support the President and his administration, and protest its political agenda. Like the first group, they also do not receive support from the governing bodies that distribute the subsidized paper and are similarly suffering from the increasing price of paper.
The case of the Jomhouri Eslami newspaper best illustrates the challenges faced by these publishers. Jomhouri Eslami, which maintains close ties to the Supreme Leader, has criticized the President’s administration for exclusively supporting publishers close to the administration. In one editorial, the paper criticized the government for supporting only its favorite publishers, stating it was illegal to isolate those “real supporters” of the Islamic system, and promote a culture of constant praise for the President and his administration in print media.
In addition to Jomhouri Eslami, other Islamic publishers not supportive of Ahmadinejad’s administration have also complained about the increasing price of paper and the lack of government support. Ayatollah Sobhani and Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi are amongst those criticizing the government for the increasing price of paper, which has caused several problems for Iranian publishers.
However, unlike independent publishers, this second group has access to major funds and resources from other governmental bodies and religious institutions and use their funds to directly import paper. Qom Publishers Union, for example, enjoys support from mosques and major religious leaders, and plans to import paper in order to continue its publication. This subset of publishers, given its access to government and religious funds, is less reliant on profit from sales and does not have to increase prices to survive.
The third and last group of publishers are those affiliated with President Ahmadinejad’s administration. Regardless of the cuts on subsidies for importing paper, the government continues to provide these publishers with subsidized paper and the administration has allocated major funds to purchase books from these publishers. Finally, the government helps these publishers by purchasing government-sponsored advertisements in their magazines and newspapers, and given this generous support from the government, this third of group of publishers has hardly been affected at all by the increased price of paper.
The crisis of paper has forced independent publishers to increase prices, reduce the number of publications, and in many cases close down. Publishers that are affiliated with governmental or religious institutions are better positioned to deal with the crisis through their access to private and organizational funds. The increased price of paper hasn’t affected those publishers close to the President's administration at all, and they have been thriving at a time when so many other publishers are tightening their belts or shutting down entirely, further limiting Iranians’ access to independent print media and providing Ahmadinejad with a playing field increasingly devoid of competitors.