Prague, 3 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently sent a message which can be regarded as the opening salvo of a new effort by hardliners to tighten their control over Iran's broadcast and print media.
The battle over the media is likely to gain significance in the coming months as Iran approaches parliamentary elections due early next year, and control of the media could help decide the outcome of the polls.
Speaking to an audience of Iranian publishers last month, Khamenei said: "The enemy is trying to attack the political system in the Islamic Republic with the aid of cultural devices." He warned that what he called disseminators of philosophical or political thought may be knowingly or unknowingly pursuing a plot for sabotage and subversion.
Khamenei called broadcast media a particular concern and said the law banning satellite dishes must remain in effect. State radio quoted him as also saying that Tehran should identify ways to prevent foreign satellite transmissions proportional to the advance of technology.
The supreme leader's remarks appear to be both an endorsement of new restrictions on Iran's divided and outspoken media and a rejection of liberal Iranians' calls for still greater openness.
His statements come as a top liberal official, Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani, told students at Shahroud University east of Tehran recently that the government of relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami disagrees with the satellite receiver ban.
Mohajerani's words immediately drew sharp rebukes from conservatives. The influential Hojatoleslam Torabi, the Friday prayer leader for the southwestern city of Kuhdasht, asked: "His excellency the minister thinks this is Europe or America?" He added: "This is a system, an Islamic system. And these people, they are a Muslim people."
The hardline camp unveiled its strategy for tightening controls on media at the annual Voice And Vision festival in Zibakenar. State radio and television chief Ali Larijani said that to provide an alternative to foreign sources he will expand official satellite, radio, and television networks.
Liberal critics have often said that state outlets should provide better and more varied programs rather than increasing their current diet of broadcasts. The weekly "Azadi" accused the state channels at the end of last month of repeating the same films and programs, and said many are not interesting.
The supreme leader's most recent intervention in the debate gives an additional boost to the conservatives because it follows his re-appointment of Larijani to another five-year term on May 26. The re-appointment assures that conservatives will keep control of the airwaves as Iran's most important form of media. Iranians rely on television and radio for most of their information because newspapers and print media have a limited circulation outside the main cities.
The hardliner's initiative to tighten their grip on broadcast media comes as they also renew pressure on the print media, which began with the closure of the liberal "Zan" daily in March.
Last month, conservative judges summoned Former Islamic Culture and Guidance ministry official Issa Saharkhizon on charges of allowing publication of a special issue of the banned "Zan."
By the end of May, the apparent crackdown extended to the arrest of Fereidoun Verdinejad, the managing director of the state news agency IRNA and director of the English-language "Iran Daily" and Persian-language "Iran." His arrest was in connection with a cartoon his newspaper ran showing a television serving as a toilet's cistern.
At the same time, Mohammad Reza Zohdi, editor of "Arya," was arrested on charges of disclosing military information. Others in print media summoned for hearings included Latif Safari of "Neshat" and Said Hajjarian of "Imruz." Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri, who publishes "Khordad," has been summoned by the Special Court for the Clergy.
These media-related events can be seen in the context of Iran's continuing factional struggle and are not completely unexpected. But their significance is likely to grow as Iran faces parliamentary elections in April of 2000, when control of the media could help decide the races.
In recent weeks, the parliament itself has come down on both sides of the battle over the media. A little over a month ago, parliament decided against giving Mohajerani a vote of no-confidence. At that point it seemed the body was taking a popular stance and siding with the reformists, perhaps thinking the issue was one on which votes would be cast in the election. Thus, it appeared that the body, and its large block of independent members, was turning away from its conservative tendencies.
But last week, the very same parliament re-elected the conservative speaker, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, with 161 out of 246 votes. Then 228 parliamentarians signed a letter in which they declared that, quoting: "like the leader, they too sense the cultural inroad of the enemy in the form of a plot for transformation and overthrow of the system ... [and] ... they will spare no effort to foil such a conspiracy."
Such readiness by parliamentarians to embrace the liberal camp in one media battle only to endorse the conservatives in the next makes it extremely difficult to predict the outcome of next year's legislative poll. But it may be one sign that parliament, once a bastion of the conservative camp, is increasingly moved as much by political opportunism and expediency ahead of the upcoming elections as by ideology.
(William Samii is a regional specialist with RFE/RL's Communications Division.)