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Iran: Legislature Tough On Reformist Press, Lenient On State Media

  • Bill Samii --> Two recent incidents indicate the politicized nature of Iranian media affairs and reveal the impact of conservative domination of the legislature and the resulting absence of oversight. In the first case a reporter has lost her access to the parliamentary beat, and in the second case state television is serving as a platform for a conservative presidential candidate's campaign speeches. Conservative control of the executive branch, which is a possibility after the June presidential election, could make things worse.

In the most recent media-related incident, parliamentarians voted to block a correspondent's access to the legislature. Masih Ali-Nejad, who works for the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) and pro-reform "Hambastegi" newspaper, reported on the pay slip of a parliamentarian that showed his salary, a new-year payment, and a $1,250 bonus. Subsequently, according to ILNA on 4 April, some parliamentarians and the conservative press accused Ali-Nejad of stealing the pay-slip from the legislator's pigeonhole, and guards prevented Ali-Nejad from entering the parliament building. Mohammad Reza Tabesh, the reformist parliamentary representative from Ardakan, however, said one of his reformist colleagues gave the pay slip to Ali-Nejad.

Reformist members of parliament invited Ali-Nejad to enter the building, ILNA reported on 6 April, but the guards blocked the way again.

Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, spokesman of the Association in Defense of Press Freedoms, said that expelling a reporter prevents her from doing her job, ILNA reported on 5 April. Shamsolvaezin expressed concern that the legislature is joining in the judiciary's restricting correspondents.

News Pressure

Approximately 350 news people signed a petition against the ban on Ali-Nejad, ILNA reported on 15 April. The petition noted that journalists already face financial and professional pressures, and now they are encountering problems stemming from political disputes. This is harmful to journalists, but it also undermines the free flow of information, which is indispensable for official accountability.

Most observers would agree that when an official's salary is paid from the public coffer, then the public has a right to know how much that person is paid. This is especially true when that official is an elected representative of the people. The legislature's desire to be unaccountable is a bad sign, as this is the same institution that is supposed to examine the financial activities of other state entities. If members of parliament refuse to be forthright on their own salaries, then they will have little credibility when investigating other state institutions. Likewise, their calls on the public to endure hardship will seem far-fetched if they are embarrassed to show how much they are earning.

The other recent media dispute relates to the presidential campaign and broadcast media.

Exploitation 'Until The Elections'

A number of prospective candidates refused to appear on a state television program called "Until the Elections" in late March. One exception was Tehran parliamentary representative and prospective conservative candidate Ahmad Tavakoli, who appeared on the show and criticized the executive branch and state officials. He also inaccurately attributed remarks to President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami.

Khorasan parliamentarian Hojatoleslam Mohammad Shariati-Dehqan, who serves on the committee that oversees state radio and television (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, aka Voice and Vision of Iran), reacted to this incident on 2 April, ISNA reported. Shariati-Dehqan criticized IRIB officials for not heeding regulations relating to the election, and he specifically referred to an absence of "fairness and justice in news bulletins."

Shariati-Dehqan also noted that parliamentary supervision and oversight of IRIB has fallen drastically since the conservatives assumed control of the legislature. State broadcasting officials are exploiting this situation, he said, and they have ignored letters and warnings from the committee.
"The programs being aired by IRIB are clear examples of publicity for specific candidates." -- Interior Ministry

The oversight committee met on 10 April to review "Until the Elections." The head of the committee, Khorasan parliamentarian Gholam Hussein Mozaffari, said afterward that having prospective candidates appear on the show is causing problems, ISNA reported on 11 April. The committee decided, therefore, to invite the candidates to speak in their roles as political experts and activists.

The Interior Ministry also criticized IRIB for its lack of impartiality. A letter from the ministry said, "The programs being aired by IRIB are clear examples of publicity for specific candidates," IRNA reported on 11 April. The letter added that "Until the Elections" essentially provided publicity for some candidates, and it cited the appearances of Ali Larijani, Mohsen Rezai, and Ahmad Tavakoli. The Interior Ministry noted that the Election Law requires that all candidates should have equal access to campaign facilities.

The Guardians Council supervises election and would be expected to express a view on this issue. However, Mohammad Jahromi, the Guardians Council's deputy director of elections, was noncommittal. He said the law is "silent" when it comes to early campaigning by prospective presidential candidates, "Mardom Salari" reported on 5 April. This kind of early campaigning is acceptable as long the individuals are not referred to as candidates, Jahromi said. He added the Guardians Council will not investigate the issue unless it receives an official request from the legislature.

Voice And Vision

Accusations of a hard-line bias on the part of the Voice and Vision are not infrequent occurrences and are heard before and after most elections, as well as major political crises. So the most recent complaints are not a surprise. The legislature's oversight of state broadcasting is supposed to keep such incidents in check. However many members of parliament have a background in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, as does IRIB chief Ezzatollah Zarghami. These personal ties and their similarly conservative ideological tendencies indicate that they will do little to control the Voice and Vision.

The combination of these media-related events suggests that although the public is entitled to information about the parliament, as well as impartial parliamentary oversight of state institutions, it is unlikely to get them. And this situation will only get worse if conservatives gain control of the executive branch.