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Iran: Media Wars Escalate In Run-Up To Election

Iran's newspaper wars are heating up again with the banning over the weekend of the country's most outspoken newspaper. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, the banning is a sign that both the conservatives and the reformists are stepping up the pressure prior to upcoming parliamentary elections.

Prague, 8 September 1999(RFE/RL) -- Iran's reformist and conservative camps are continuing to escalate their high-stakes media war over the direction of Iran's future as the country looks toward parliamentary elections in February.

The latest salvo came Sunday with the banning by Iran's conservative judiciary of the reformists' most critical and outspoken newspaper, Neshat. The paper infuriated conservatives earlier this month by publishing an article saying Iran should do away with the death penalty in line with universal standards of human rights.

The call for ending the death penalty drew an immediate condemnation from Iran's conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said that journalists who question the tenets of Iran's Islamic law are "apostates" liable themselves for the death penalty. In keeping with the spirit of Khamenei's words, a conservative-dominated press court quickly put to death the offending paper, despite Neshat printing an apology to readers, saying it had no intention of offending or questioning Islam.

The closure of Neshat -- the fourth time a leading pro-reform paper has been shut down this year -- shows that neither the conservatives nor reformists are daunted by the six days of nationwide violence that followed their last major press battle just two months ago. That unrest came after a court silenced what had been the reformists' previously most outspoken voice, Salam. The banning of Salam set off student protests, which turned into nationwide riots when the demonstrators were attacked by security forces and Islamic militants.

Analysts say that, despite the possibility violence could explode again, both sides see continuing their high-risk newspaper battles as crucial to influencing Iranian voters ahead of February's parliamentary poll. The reason is that newspapers and magazines provide the sole forum for debating ideological differences in a country where the state-controlled broadcast media remains firmly in the hands of the conservatives.

Edmund Herzig is an expert on Iran at the University of Manchester in England. He told RFE/RL that the reformists are determined to maximize their use of the print media to urge social changes prior to the vote, which they hope will end the conservatives' majority in parliament. The conservatives are no less determined to minimize the number of reformist papers by using their control of the courts to close them. Herzig says that makes it likely that the pace of both closures and openings of reformist papers will only accelerate in the months ahead.

"It's the run-up to the actual campaign. The campaign has not started but ... people are very clear in their minds [as to] who is aligned with whom and which publications are aligned with which groupings in Iran. ... Developments in the press and the openings and closings of papers and movement on press freedom do in a way become a kind of proxy for ... political debate and political issues, so ... as the elections get closer, it may well be that it will intensify."

So far, reformist editors have shown no sign of backing down before the conservatives' constant shutting of their papers, even though some editors of banned publications are in jail awaiting trial. An official at Neshat, Latif Safari, told a press conference in Tehran on Monday that a new daily by the same staff will be on newsstands this week.

Reformists have been able to effectively re-open their closed papers thanks to a sympathetic Culture Ministry, which controls newspaper licensing. The ministry -- led by reformists backing Iran's relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami -- has issued hundreds of licenses for new publications since Khatami's election two years ago on promises to make Iran a more open society.

Analysts say the latest subject of dispute in the newspaper wars -- the debate over capital punishment -- is a highly emotional symbol that goes to the heart of the philosophical division between the reformist and conservative camps. That division is over how strict or moderate an Islamic state Iran should be in the future. Herzig says:

"This is an issue which can be seen as pitting a kind of Western-inspired approach to the question of violence and human rights -- the idea of giving up the death penalty [which is] what the international human rights organizations advocate -- on the one hand, and a more traditional interpretation of Islamic values and Islamic law on the other. So, it is another of those areas where the reformists and conservatives clash over principle and over what are the sources for appropriate behavior, what are the sources for authority, and what are the sources upon which the Islamic Republic should base its law and its behavior."

Since 1979, the Islamic Republic has used capital punishment liberally to protect the Islamic revolution. The penalty has been applied to ill-defined counter-revolutionaries, as well as for offenses under the Islamic republic's Sharia-derived civil and criminal codes. In one measure of the sensitivity surrounding the subject, papers and writers have been strictly forbidden since the revolution from questioning the "ideological basis" of Islamic law as the regime interprets it.

But recent years have seen increasing restiveness over the severity of Islamic courts and over the restrictions they place on individual freedoms. The dissatisfaction is highest among the some 60 percent of the population that is under the age of 25 and has no direct memories of the revolution's origins. Many want more political and economic liberties than their parents had and are frustrated by Iran's ailing economy, which increasingly has difficulty providing them jobs.

The desire for change assured Khatami a landslide victory two years ago when he ran on campaign promises to create a more civil society tolerating greater personal freedoms. But the reformist drive has run into tough resistance from Iran's conservatives, who see greater civil liberties as contradicting their vision of a theocratic state.