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Iran: Media Caught In Political Struggle

Prague, 23 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An Iranian court released on bail on Oct. 21 two journalists arrested one month ago after their moderate daily newspaper, "Tous," was banned.

Last week, the newspaper's business director was also released on bail. The editor of the article that got them all into trouble with authorities remains behind bars.

The four were arrested on order of the Islamic Revolutionary Court on charges of acting against Iran's security. Beyond that, officials have given no details of the charges.

Similar cases have grown in number in recent weeks, as Iran heads into critical elections for an Assembly of Experts today. The conservative-dominated clerical court has the power to appoint and dismiss Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei issued an "ultimatum" last month against what he called the "creeping excesses" of an increasingly free-wheeling Iranian press.

Western correspondents writing from inside Iran have reported that there is a climate of fear running through editorial offices and publishing houses in the Islamic Republic. Events are also being watched by Iranian exile journalists, including Ali Keshtgar, editor in chief of the journal "Mihan," or Nation. He told RFE/RL, "The situation is very difficult and, sorry, (President Mohammad) Khatami's acts and words are completely different. He has shown a very beautiful image of the Iranian presidency abroad but, in reality, at the time when he is speaking at the United Nations about human rights, the Iranian government is threatening the writer and limiting the rights of even those ... attempting to work within the limits of the (law). He has preferred to have an understanding with the reactionary wing and Khamenei, and he doesn't want to mobilize the people."

Keshtgar left his country in 1984 and moved to Paris after being forced to live "underground" as "a wanted man." Before his exile, he was the leader of a political group, The People's Fadai. Today, he is still a political activist as well as a member of the press.

Keshtgar told RFE/RL that he fears the latest movement against Iran's moderate press is more "profound" and will last well beyond tomorrow's elections. He also expressed dismay that Khatami has urged the people to vote in what Keshtgar calls a "show election," despite curbs on the moderate press and the exclusion of many moderate candidates.

Ali Ansari, an Iran expert and lecturer on the political history of the Middle East at Durham University in England, takes a more positive view. He told RFE/RL that it is important to have both a short and long-term view when assessing press controls in Iran.

Ansari said, "In the past year, as far as the press is concerned, we've taken several steps forward and, yes, maybe one step back this last month. But the overall assessment is still a positive one. Certainly in the past year, since Khatami has become president, there has been a growing liberalization in cultural and media terms in actual fact, although we're now experiencing a bit of a downturn as far as some particular newspapers are concerned. But (we should) remember (that) in the past year the Ministry of Culture and Guidance has licensed some 200 newspapers and journals ... This represents some 25 percent of all newspapers and journals currently published in Iran. So this is quite an advance."

Ansari said that the progress has also extended generally to a relaxation in terms of Islamic restrictions, a growing emphasis on rule of law, and the increasing participation and sanctioning of political parties in Iran.

At the same time, Ansari acknowledged that the moderate media in Iran are being increasingly drawn into and used in the country's internal political struggle, pitting moderates aligned with President Khatami against hard-line factions loyal to supreme leader Khamenei. Ansari highlighted his point by citing the long-standing decree, or Fatwa, condemning British author Salman Rushdie to death for alleged blasphemy in his novel "Satanic Verses."

Ansari said, "We can see that in the grand scheme of things, politically speaking, both internationally and domestically, that the moderates are having to give a certain amount of ground, or to compromise in certain areas, in order to get some of their other objectives through. And one of the key objectives in this last month has been the diplomatic solution to the Rushdie crisis and this has been a major achievement for Khatami in forwarding his overall policy of reintegrating Iran within the international arena. And in order to push this through and to get agreement for it he has had to in some ways compromise on areas that hardliners are particularly aware of or are particularly sensitive about."

In this political context, Ansari characterized press control as "very fluid and dynamic."

Exiled journalist Keshtgar told RFE/RL it is business as usual. "Nothing is changed in Iran. The reactionary wing and its head, Khamenei, want (the Rushdie) case to show the Iranian people and also the West that Khatami doesn't have enough power. They try to show that it is this wing that can decide and nobody else."

Keshtgar urged writers both inside and outside Iran to put aside their ideological differences and unite in the name of free speech. Otherwise, Keshtgar said, Iran will face a future of inadequate coverage by an overly cautious press.