Washington, 21 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Press freedom is so widely recognized as a universal human right that even those authoritarian leaders who seek to subvert it in practice feel compelled to defend it in principle.
That pattern, repeated in two otherwise very different countries this week, simultaneously allows these leaders to exercise control in the short term but creates the conditions for radical change in the future.
In Iran, the country's parliament earlier this week approved a press law banning any criticism of the constitution, extending responsibility for publication from publishers to writers, and allowing hardline revolutionary courts to prosecute journalists.
Then on Wednesday, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told an audience of 100,000 at Tehran's Grand Mosque that pro-reform press outlets have become "the bases of the enemy" within Iran, serving the interests of "U.S., British, and Zionist media" rather than of the Iranian people and its revolution. Indeed, he added, some 10 or 15 of the papers appear to be "controlled from a single center" abroad.
A week earlier, Khamenei suggested that the use of "Islamic violence" against such enemies of the state was entirely legitimate. But this week, Khamenei felt compelled to add that "I am not against press freedom" -- even though the new laws and the measures he personally has advocated have the effect of undercutting any possibility of its realization.
Then, on Thursday, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev made statements paralleling those of Ayatollah Khamenie. On the one hand, he said his government would increase its control of the press in order to crack down on media "provocateurs" who he claimed are "working against Kazakhstan" and seeking "to sabotage it and its relations with neighboring countries."
In remarks before a conference on fighting crime and corruption that was televised across Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev said that the state security apparatus had adopted an overly liberal attitude to the media in the past and that he expected the authorities to adopt a much tougher line in the future.
But like his Iranian counterpart, Nazarbaev concluded that "I have always defended freedom of the press and will continue to do so."
What makes these two pairs of comment so striking is their timing. Khamenei's remarks come following the victory of reformers in the Iranian parliamentary vote. Nazarbaev's came only a day after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright departed from Central Asia where she had called for greater democratization and openness throughout the region.
But the remarks of these two leaders have three broader implications not only for these two countries but for all who seek to suppress freedom of the press
First, their comments underscore the power of the press to affect elite opinion even in countries whose governments seem to be unresponsive. In both these countries, the government already exercises almost total control over the electronic media. But key elites read newspapers and consequently these regimes are increasingly agitated by the messages these uncontrolled outlets are carrying.
Such authoritarian regimes appear to be especially concerned because these governments are fighting what even their leaders see is a losing battle to control access to information. Indeed, on the very day that Khamenei made his remarks, another part of the Iranian government announced plans to broaden opportunities Iranians will have to go online on the Internet.
Second, the remarks of Khamenei and Nazarbaev highlight the power of press freedom as an idea that no leader can attack openly even if he or she tries to undermine it at home.
Until recently, many authoritarian rulers simply suppressed the media without feeling the need to deny what they were doing. Now, in deference to international public opinion and the attitudes of their own people, ever more of them try to justify what they are doing on other grounds and maintain their image as defenders of press freedom.
But such defense has the effect of setting the agenda for their opponents, allowing them to raise the banner of freedom for something that the rulers say they actually respect. The contrast between what these leaders do and what they say is thereby transformed into a crisis of political authority, precisely the thing that such leaders are trying to avoid.
And third, and particularly in countries like Iran and Kazakhstan, this combination of suppression and respect drives the discussion of key issues underground. That entails a variety of more serious consequences both for these governments and for their international supporters.
Not only does it limit the ability of the governors to know what is going on in the minds of their citizens, but it creates conditions under which the future is likely to be ever more unstable, just the opposite of what these leaders and their defenders intend.
And consequently when such self-proclaimed "defenders" of media freedom attack the press as Khamenei and Nazarbaev did this week, they are unintentionally attacking themselves and even more the regimes that they say they want to maintain.