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Iran: State Maintains Tight Control Over Information

Journalists at work in Tehran (file photo) (Fars) Suspension of newspapers, the intimidation and harassment of journalists, arrests and prison sentences by Iran's conservative judiciary were frequent events during reformist Mohammad Khatami's presidency. His successor -- hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- has not improved the situation for Iranian journalists who complain of increased pressure and tighter media restrictions. At the local level, a growing number of journalists have been jailed and their publications have been suspended.

PRAGUE, May 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Vahid Pourostad, a media lawyer and member of the editorial board of the reformist "Etemad Melli" ("National Trust") newspaper, was attacked by an unknown assailant on the night of April 8.

The man reportedly placed a knife on his throat and threatened to kill him. Pourostad was not hurt but his files were stolen.

He revealed the details of the attack in his online blog.

In recent months there have been other reports of threats and intimidation against journalists.

Rising Tide Of State Pressure

Mashaollah Shamsolvaezin, a prominent Iranian journalist and the spokesman of the Committee To Defend Press Freedom, tells RFE/RL that state pressure on journalists has also increased.

The newsroom of Iran's state-controlled "Hamsharhri" newspaper (AFP)

"The National Supreme Security Council allows itself whenever it wants to warn journalists and issue circulars to editors in chief telling them what to write and what not to write and Tehran's prosecutor-general, Saeed Mortazavi, directly contacts the press," Shamsolvaezin said. "I once said in an interview that Mr. Mortazavi is the editor in chief of Iranian newspapers. The Culture Ministry also summons journalists and talks to them and in these talks they also make implicit threats so that journalists don't cross red lines."

Iranian journalists have always had to deal with red lines. For example, any criticism of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is a red line that journalists know not to cross.

Figuring Out Where The Boundaries Are

In recent months journalists have come under pressure not to criticize the country's nuclear policies and not to depict the Iranian government's dealings in the nuclear crisis as unsuccessful.

Fariba Davoudi Mohajer, an outspoken journalist in Tehran, tells RFE/RL that "the boundaries have become much tighter" than they were before. She adds, however, that in some cases journalists do not know where the boundaries are.

"Some of these red lines are very clear and some are not," she said. "The issue of talks with the U.S. was, until a month ago, a red line. For example, if I would write an article about it, it wouldn't get published. Therefore, journalists are confused."

The online daily "Rooz" recently reported that after March 21 -- the beginning of the new Iranian year -- Iran's National Supreme Security Council has announced new restrictions on the media.

According to the report, editors in chief have been warned to avoid publishing political analysis that differs from the country's official policy.

Shamsolvaezin believes that in recent months the situation regarding freedom of expression, freedom of information, and the safety of journalists has deteriorated in Iran.

Problems At The Regional Level

"Since the government of Ahmadinejad came to power we have not witnessed as many cases of journalists being arrested, but the act of bringing criminal charges against journalists is spreading to [other] cities and provinces," he said. "In Tehran, courts only issue heavy suspended sentences against journalists but don't send them to prison because of the negative international reaction."

Iranian journalists covering a press conference in Beriut in May 2005 (AFP)

Many journalists have also left the country. Others have changed their jobs and many have been forced to submit themselves to censorship and stay in line with official policies in order to keep their jobs.

Davoudi Mohajer says some have also lost their jobs.

"It seems that now there is freedom of expression only for the supporters of a certain opinion and not for all people," she said. "Just in the last few weeks we witnessed that about half of the ILNA news agency staff losing their jobs under the pretext of economic issues but, in fact, most of them are considered reformists and this dealt a severe blow to Iran's journalism community."

The Rise Of The Internet

In addition to increased pressure on the media, there are also reports of the government's tighter control of the Internet, which in recent years has turned into a serious alternative news source.

Many Iranian journalists have their own weblogs and some have accused the government of blocking and filtering their sites.

In the past two years many bloggers have faced harassment and some have been imprisoned.

There have also been reports of attempts to monitor text messaging (SMSes on mobile phones), which has become very popular in Iran for communicating and sharing jokes and is also used as a political tool.

There has been no comment from the Iranian government about complaints of tighter media restrictions and an assault on the freedom of expression.

Tehran Prosecutor-General Mortazavi, who has been called "the butcher of the press," said recently that "freedom of the press and freedom of expression are not absolute and are subject to respect for Islamic and legal principles."

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.