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Iran Report: April 19, 2001

19 April 2001, Volume 4, Number 15

A SNAIL CRAWLING ALONG A RAZOR: THE PRESS IN IRAN, 1997-2001 Iranian publisher Shahla Lahiji will be awarded the 2001 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on 23 April. She is facing a three-and-a-half year prison sentence for acting against national security and another six months for describing the dangers faced by Iranian writers. Iranian editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin's first year in prison was marked on 10 April, and last November he received the International Press Freedom Award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. In fact, there are at least 20 Iranian journalists in prison now, and almost 50 Iranian publications have been closed by the government in the last year.

Only four years ago it looked like things would turn out differently.

The election of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami in May 1997 and his appointment of Ataollah Mohajerani as Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister led to expectations of a blossoming of the Iranian press. Indeed, in the first year of Khatami's presidency, 226 publications received licenses. But at the same time, newspapers were closed for violating vague and unevenly enforced regulations -- crossing the poorly defined "red line." Journalists were tried, incarcerated, and sometimes prevented from practicing their profession. Others were murdered or just vanished from the face of the earth.

The press law was strengthened, and the "red line" was more clearly defined by the fifth parliament shortly before its final session. The new law was used to close some 16 publications in about two weeks in April 2000, and at least 44 publications until now. And when the new, predominantly-reformist, sixth parliament tried to change the press law in August 2000, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blocked the debate.

This special edition of the "RFE/RL Iran Report" will describe the state of the Iranian press in the last four years. One sees that publications and journalists began to take on more and more controversial subjects. One also sees that there were numerous press closures, especially in the last year. These two developments led to the creation of what Iranian conservatives term the "serial newspapers" and Iranian reformists term the "serial plaintiffs." The conclusion will contain predictions on short-term developments in Iranian politics and descriptions of the impact on the Iranian press of those developments.

HIGH EXPECTATIONS When President Khatami was elected on 23 May 1997, there were expectations of increased press freedom for several reasons. First of all, he was interpellated (in 1992) after almost 10 years as minister of Islamic culture and guidance due the impression that he was too lax with the media and because he had advocated relations with the U.S. Then he appointed Ataollah Mohajerani as minister of Islamic culture and guidance, and there were early predictions that Mohajerani would not win parliamentary approval. "Introducing a person like Mohajerani, who seeks relations with America, is an insult to the parliament," parliamentarian Mehdi-Reza Darvishzadeh warned.

During his presidential campaign, Khatami promised increased openness, civil society, and governmental accountability and transparency. A free press is essential if these conditions are to be met. A free press provides a voice for the average citizen. Journalists keep an eye on the government, serving as the proverbial watchdogs that can detect corruption and abuses of power. And in Iran, many publications serve as party mouthpieces, especially when contrasted with state broadcasting, which is heavily biased in favor of hard-line political tendencies.

And on the day that Khatami's victory was announced his spokesman, Ahmad Burqani, said that "Of course Mr. Khatami will not continue the present restrictions on the press and media. He will have an open policy toward them." In his first extended remarks after winning the election, Khatami said that it was time to insure more democracy in Iran. Khatami said that the Islamic Republic was stable enough and had recovered sufficiently from its war with Iraq to begin guaranteeing its citizens full constitutional rights, including free thought, life, employment, assembly and association. "We hope to gradually witness a more legal society," he said, "with more clearly defined rights and duties for citizens and the government." And in his first address after taking office, Khatami also called for the creation of an independent press.

SOME EXPECTATIONS MET... In the first year of the Khatami presidency, a reinvigorated press began to emerge. Notable was the publication of "Jameah," which was the first to report the IRGC commander's closed-door speech in which he threatened to "cut the necks and tongues" of political opponents. The daily also ran interviews with Abbas Amir Entezam, who had served 15 years in prison as an American spy, in which he described torture in the prison system and the need to separate religion from politics. Publications like this questioned the status quo, and they also served as vehicles for reform-oriented political figures to express their views.

But even then, it was clear that the press in Iran was not going to have an easy time of it. Student leader Heshmatollah Tabarzadi was beaten up and his newspaper was closed in late 1997 after he said that the Supreme Leader should be elected directly by the people for a limited term. "Jameah" had its license suspended in June 1998, and the next month it resumed publication with the same staff under the name "Tous." In August the Judiciary ordered the closure of "Tous" for "publishing lies and disrupting public order," and Hezbollahis beat up Shamsolvaezin. And the daily was permanently closed in September for questioning Tehran's tough policy towards the Taliban.

The situation deteriorated further in 1999 with some major press closures. During that period some of the closures clearly were factional and linked with their support for the reformists. Be that as it may, the issue was not always purely one of hard-liners versus reformists, or conservatives versus pro-Khatami moderates. By examining five of the more significant cases in 1999, one sees that only twice -- in the cases of "Salam" and "Khordad" -- was the issue so clear-cut. The cases of "Zan," "Hoviat-i Khish," "Neshat," and many others demonstrate the complex factors involved in silencing Iran's more outspoken media.

On 7 July 1999, "Salam" was closed and its editor in chief, Abbas Abdi, was arrested on the basis of a complaint from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). The complaint stemmed from a 6 July "Salam" report about a MOIS plan to restrict the press. The MOIS said that the "Salam" report was false; the MOIS had no such plan and the letter cited by "Salam" was a fake. The MOIS dropped the complaint against Abdi and he was released.

The managing director of "Salam," Hojatoleslam Muhammad Asqar Musavi-Khoeniha, however, was tried by the Special Court for the Clergy in July 1999 on charges of spreading fabrications, disturbing public opinion, and publishing classified documents. Khoeniha was found guilty and sentenced to a three-and-a-half year jail term and a flogging, but the sentence was suspended and Khoeniha was fined instead. He was banned from publishing activities for three years, and "Salam" was banned for five years.

Actions against "Salam" were politically driven. By restricting Khoeniha and Abdi's media access, hard-liners eliminated some of the institutional support for the pro-Khatami Second of Khordad movement. Khoeniha is a co-founder of the pro-Khatami student group called the Office for Strengthening Unity, which is a member of the Second of Khordad movement. Khoeniha also is a leader of the Student's Following the Line of the Imam, the organization that occupied the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and held the American hostages. Abdi is a member of the latter group, and he is a founder of Khatami's Islamic Iran Participation Party. Leaders of the Office for Strengthening Unity, such as Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, are also one-time members of the Students Following the Line of the Imam.

Application of the law in this case clearly showed political-factional motivations. Hard-line publications -- the weekly "Javan" and the dailies "Kayhan" and "Jomhuri-yi Islami" -- printed copies of a letter from 24 Islamic Revolution Guard Corps commanders to Khatami in which they threatened to take the law into their own hands if the president did not act against the demonstrators. The publications received warnings from the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry for publishing a classified document, but nothing else happened.

Hearings before the Special Court for the Clergy in the case of "Khordad" Managing Editor Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri got underway in October 1999. This case, more so than that of "Salam" and Musavi-Khoeniha, was based on the pro-Khatami leanings of both Nuri and the publication. Nuri served as Khatami's interior minister until his June 1998 interpellation. He was elected to Tehran municipal council in February 1999, and after announcing his intention to run for the legislature he was seen as a possible speaker of the parliament.

Nuri faced charges of publishing reports that insulted officials and institutions of the system, reporting lies and waging a propaganda war against the system, insulting Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his views, publishing reports contrary to religious principles, and insulting religious sanctities. Other charges included backing ties with America, promoting dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri's political views, and urging recognition of Israel. The contents of "Khordad," the Special Court for the Clergy's special prosecutor said, "smack of conspiracy and hostility."

Nuri's defense undermined many long-standing hardline values with clear logic, and the Tehran media covered the case extensively. While this may have earned him popular support, it did not help Nuri's case. The prosecutor in the case, Hojatoleslam Muhammad Ebrahim Niknam, said that the more Nuri talks, "We realize that our opinion about him was right and his guilt becomes more certain." The jury found Nuri guilty on 15 of the infractions and recommended against any leniency in sentencing. He was sentenced to five years in prison and barred from journalistic activities for five years after that.

The "Salam" and "Khordad" cases were obvious attempts to eliminate reformist newspapers and to limit the influence of reformist political figures. Reasons for the closures of "Zan," "Hoviat-i Khish," and "Neshat" were factionally related, too. Their closures were not, however, related to their relationships with Khatami or their reformist tendencies.

The Judiciary closed Tehran's "Zan" daily in April 1999. It was punished for publishing a letter from the ex-empress of Iran and for publishing a cartoon ridiculing the current Iranian interpretation of the principle of "blood money." The case against "Zan" was not so much an attack on a Second of Khordad publication, although Faezeh Hashemi herself is a Khatami supporter. There was resentment over her apparent personal ambition. It was also an attempt to lessen the influence of Hashemi's father, Expediency Council head Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. He is identified as the leader (in loose terms) of the Executives of Construction Party that is connected with Khatami's successful 1997 election campaign. In addition, there is a great deal of resentment over the cronyism, nepotism, and corruption associated with his family.

In June 1999, the Revolutionary Court detained "Hoviat-i Khish" weekly's editor in chief, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, and director, Hussein Kashani. Tabarzadi's real crime was his role as a leader of the Islamic Union of Students and Graduates, a more radical student group. The 8 July 1999 student demonstrations were catalyzed by the arrest two days earlier of students who gathered to protest Tabarzadi and Kashani's detentions. The Revolutionary Court judge later said that members of the Islamic Union of Students and Graduates were being prosecuted for their parts in the July demonstrations.

The September 1999 closure of "Neshat" was politically motivated, too, although the charges brought against it did not indicate this clearly. The charges against the daily stemmed from its publication of an open letter urging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to distance himself from hard-liners, as well as two articles criticizing capital punishment.

"Neshat" seemed destined for a bad end from the outset. Its staff consisted of personnel from the previously banned "Tous" and "Jameah" newspapers. In April, just three months after getting its license, managing director Latif Safari had to appear before the Tehran Revolutionary Court on charges of questioning the Islamic Revolution and supporting the monarchy.

In August, complaints were filed against "Neshat" by the Law Enforcement Forces, state broadcasting, the state prosecutor, Qom's Special Court for the Clergy, the Islamic Open University, and some parliamentary deputies. "Neshat's" managing director had to appear in court, as did Neshat columnist Ebrahim Nabavi. When "Neshat" was banned in September, the Tehran Justice Department pointed out that "repeated summons and bails [sic] have proved ineffective in preventing the daily from repeating its offense."

In 1999, other publications and their personnel encountered "legal" problems for reasons that are not political or factional. For example, the director of the provincial publication "Kosar Kavir Kerman" claimed that his offices were set ablaze in reaction to articles about the improper use of nationalized property in Kerman Province. The publisher of Sanandaj's Kurdish-language "Sirwan" weekly was summoned "for publishing falsehoods and slander against an adviser of the head of the judiciary," although it is more likely that the real issue was publication of an article about financial mismanagement in the Kurdistan Province governorate. The situation in Gilan province seemed especially bad. Ali Sebati, director of the provincial publication "Payam-i Shomal" was arrested by the Gilan province headquarters of the MOIS. Two months later, seven Gilan journalists were imprisoned.

...OTHERS SHATTERED... What observers of the Iranian media scene are seeing now is akin to an apocalypse. Since April 2000 there have been 44 press closures, and on 7 April 2001, four more publications -- "Nakhl," "Ava-yi Varzish," "Mardom va Zindigi" and "Bazar-i Ruz Tehran" -- received warnings. This trend started in March-April 2000, when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave several sermons and speeches that were critical of advocates of reform and of the reformist press specifically.

In one sermon, Khamenei said that the West first attacked Iran via its radio stations, but now it is building a "stronghold" in Iran. He said the press is creating anxiety, discord, and pessimism. "It seems as if 10 or 15 newspapers are being directed from the same center to publish articles with similar headlines. They make mountains out of molehills...kill the hope among the youth...weaken the people's trust...offend and insult."

Then the new press law was passed. In just one day, 13 publications were closed -- "Guzarish-i Ruz," "Bamdad-i No," "Aftab-i Imruz," "Payam-i Azadi," "Fath," "Arya," "Asr-i Azadigan," "Manateq-i Azad," "Payam-i Hajar," "Aban," "Arzesh," "Iran-i Farda." And it was quite clear that the closures related to the publications' criticism of the hard-liners and support for reformist causes.

Khamenei continued his criticism of the media during a 26 July speech in northwestern Meshkinshahr. He said that "a number of journalists in Tehran wait for opportunities in order to make a mountain out of a molehill in the political arena. They wish to keep the government, the officials, and the people engaged with political and factional issues."

In August, Khamenei put a stop to parliamentarians' debate on the press law. He warned that "Should the enemies of Islam, the revolution and the Islamic system take over or infiltrate the press, a great danger would threaten the security, unity and the faith of the people and, therefore, I cannot allow myself and other officials to keep quiet in respect of this crucial issue." Khamenei went on to say that "The current [press] law, to a degree, has been able to prevent the appearance of this great calamity, and [therefore], its interpretation [amendment] and similar actions that have been anticipated by the parliamentary committee are not legitimate and not in the interest of the country and the system."

This outraged reformist deputies. Scuffles broke out in the chamber, and there was a walkout. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi reminded the protesters that the Supreme Leader's action was legally permissible. As he later told state radio, "The constitution emphasizes the Absolute Rule of the Jurisconsult ["Vilayat-i Motlaq"] and this is how it is. And, you voted for it."

At least one hardline cleric approved of this development. Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi told a meeting in Qom's Abshar Mosque that Khamenei "issued a warning to these nonsense-babblers. As a result they retreated one step. But if the people cooperate with us, the nonsense-babblers will be banished to the desert where Arabs play flute." There also were demonstrations in Qom and statements from the Tehran bazaar in support of the Supreme Leader's action.

RFE/RL's Persian Service asked reformist journalist Masud Behnud why the press law had been made so strict in the first place. Behnud explained: "When the hard-liners discovered that they were losers of the last elections, they made a few major changes to the press law at the end of the fifth parliament. These changes were based on one point only. They discovered they lost the election solely due to the presence of the press. Therefore, press has the power of making up the people's mind and they can be the determining factor, and observed the effect of the press campaign and advertisement in the past months. They changed the press law so that these things will not take place."

CLOSURES, APRIL 2000 -- APRIL 2001. "Aftab-i Imruz," "Ahrar," "Arya," "Asr-i Azadigan," "Bahar," "Bamdad-i No," "Bayan," "Dowran-i Imruz," "Fath," "Gonbad-i Kabud," "Guzarish-i Ruz," "Ham-Mihan," "Manateq-i Azad," "Mellat," "Mosharekat," "Payam-i Azadi," "Ruzdara," "Sobh-i Imruz," "Talieh," "Ava," "Aban," "Arzesh," "Cheshmeh," "Gunagun," "Iran-Javan," "Hadis," "Harim," "Khalij-i Fars," "Jahan-i Pezeshki," "Jameh-yi Madani," "Jebheh," "Mihan," "Milad," "Mobin," "Payam-i Hajar," "Qeseh-yi Zendigi," "Ruzdaran," "Sepideh Zendegi," "Sobh-i Omid," "Tavana," "Iran-i Farda," "Javanan-i Qorveh," "Kiyan," "Payam-i Imruz" Note: this list does not include student publications -- such as "Mowj" and "Iran-i Imruz" -- or publications that have closed due to financial problems, and it may not include some provincial publications that have been shut down. Also, the licenses of "Ayadin," "Danesh-i Hisabresi," and "Nava" were revoked by the Press Supervisory Board, but they had not been published for a "long time," "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 3 October 2000.

...AS DETERIORATION CONTINUES Press closures and persecution of journalists were most noticeable in Tehran, but these phenomena existed in the provinces, too. To get a better idea of issues facing provincial publications, RFE/RL's Persian Service held a roundtable with editors from "Shiraz," "Rasht," and "Tabriz." They said that the most pernicious problem is self-censorship. After seeing what happened in Tehran and noting how long their colleagues have been unemployed, provincial journalists have become very cautious. The provincial publications have other problems, not least little money from sales, advertising, or state subsidies. There is also a dearth of modern printing facilities. This means that the provincial publications have a low circulation and limited reach.

Davud Bayat, managing editor of Zanjan's "Farda-yi Roshan" weekly, appeared in court to face charges of printing defamatory articles, publishing falsehoods to divert public opinion, and vilifying institutions, and Tehran's Justice Department and the public prosecutor were the plaintiffs. Meanwhile, Mohammad Reza Nabaie, the managing editor of the weekly "Andalib," was summoned to the court following a complaint from former Malayer parliamentarian Hassan Zamani. Zamani claimed that an article in "Andalib" was defamatory, insulted the people of Malayer, distorted his words, and contained lies.

A DISTURBING NEW DEVELOPMENT The "serial plaintiffs" are another development in the Iranian media's problems, and they are, effectively, the four horsemen of this media apocalypse. The original four horsemen were pestilence, war, famine, and death. The horsemen in Iran include the IRGC, the MOIS, the counterintelligence unit of the LEF, and the IRIB. It is these organizations, as well as the Special Court for the Clergy, different Basij units, and the Ansar-i Hizbullah, who the file the complaints that lead to press trials. Among the complaints are support for dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi, insulting the IRGC or LEF, spreading rumors, and publishing false and defamatory reports.

Nor did these four horsemen confine their actions to filing criminal complaints that led to press closures. Some twenty journalists -- at a very conservative estimate -- have been imprisoned in the last year, and Reporters Without Frontiers refers to Iran as the biggest jail for journalists in the world. Moreover, people often disappear in a prison system that is run by a myriad of unaccountable security agencies. Other journalists have been murdered (Majid Sharif, Mohammad Mokhtari, Mohammad Jafar Puyandeh) or have disappeared (Piruz Davani).

WHITHER IRAN'S PRESS? If Khatami runs for president again, it is likely that he will win. He will once again have a mandate for reform, albeit a weakened one if predictions of a reduced election turn-out prove true. On the one hand, he may see himself as a lame duck who has nothing to lose by aggressively promoting freedom of the press and defending the print media. He might, therefore, appoint a Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance who was as tough as Mohajerani. On the other hand, he might not do anything.

If Khatami does not run, a conservative candidate, possibly one who is identified with the so-called "third current," stands a good chance of winning. If so, the perceived necessity for press repression may decrease, but any resurrection of the reformist media seems highly unlikely. And if a hard-liner wins through outright fraud, the only thing that might protect the press is the existence of pro-reform elements within individual state ministries.

Irrespective of who the next president is, the Judiciary, the Revolutionary Courts, and the Special Court for the Clergy will continue to target the press, journalists, publishers, and reformist politicians. The IRGC will continue in this vein, too.

Moreover, the use of the "shabnameh" (literally "night letter," a kind of samizdat) will increase if the current press situation persists. So far, most of these night letters have been produced by hard-liners and used to attack members of the reformist movement. Although they have less assets at their disposal, reformists also have resorted to night letters to spread their message. Without newspapers to convey their views, it seems likely that they will resort to samizdat more often.

Finally, Iranians' interest in foreign media, via shortwave, satellite, or the Internet will only increase as they seek unbiased information about developments in their own country. State radio and television already had a powerful role in opinion-making because newspapers and print media have a limited circulation outside the main cities. The closure of so many publications only increased this advantage. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), however, is criticized for being one-sided in its news reporting, which explains the popularity of foreign radio services. Even the April-May mass closure of publications did not enhance IRIB's popularity. At that time, shopkeepers said that the demand for short-wave receivers in Iran increased after the press closures.

To counter this phenomenon before the February 2000 parliamentary election, Tehran jammed Persian language broadcasts by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, and the BBC. A new round of jamming thus appears extremely likely, especially in light of a 13 February 2001 statement by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that "the political and security organs which are against the Islamic Republic political system in America and Europe all emphasize in their statements, and in the broadcasts of the radio stations they fund, that their efforts are aimed at countering our political system. The other day, I accidentally heard this myself, while listening to one of these radio stations..."

Recently there have been some positive developments in the Iranian media, namely the 9 April publication of "Noruz," which is linked with the Islamic Iran Participation Party, the 14 April publication of "Seda-yi Idalat," and the 17 April publication of the hardline "Siyasat-i Ruz" (Current Policy). But other reformist publications that started operations in the last year -- such as "Bayan" and "Fath" -- were closed down, too.

NOTE: Some of the information in this report appeared previously in A.W. Samii, "The Contemporary Iranian News Media, 1998-1999," "Middle East Review of International Affairs," Vol. 3, no. 4 (December 1999).