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Iran: Major Political Battle Looms Over Press Closures

By Azam Gorgin and Charles Recknagel

Iran's conservatives have stepped up efforts to silence reformist newspapers, shutting down more than a dozen this weekend. RFER/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at how reformists view the challenge.

Prague, 26 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ever since Iran's reformists took majority control of the parliament from their conservative rivals two months ago, they have been the targets of an increasingly fierce counterattack to even the score.

With the new parliament still a month away from office, an electoral watchdog body dominated by conservatives has overturned the election of some 10 reformers. At the same time the body -- the powerful Council of Guardians -- has yet to schedule a second round of voting for 65 seats needed to complete the legislative poll.

But the fiercest attacks have been reserved for the country's outspoken liberal press -- which many see as one of the main instruments of the reformists' electoral gains. In past weeks, several key reformist editors and publishers have been jailed or ordered before courts. And, in an assault which may or may not be part of the crackdown, the head of Iran's biggest reformist daily was shot in Tehran last month and is still recovering.

This weekend, the pressure from the conservatives reached an unprecedented level. The hardline press court ordered the closure of more than a dozen reform papers, wiping out half of the liberal press in a single stroke.

The mass closures come after stern warnings to the liberal press by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week. He said some reformist papers have turned into "bases of the enemy" and told journalists not to promote "U.S.-style" reforms.

Reformists say that the actions are creating a wave of fear which appears intended to stifle any attempts to use the new parliament for significant changes in Iran. But how the reformists will react is not yet clear.

RFE/RL's Persian Service spoke with several journalists and lawyers to assess how reformers view the situation. Bijan Akbari, a journalist in Tehran, said that the reformist camp is largely in a state of shock.

"A large percentage of people were looking out at the newspaper kiosks and wanting to find out what newspapers were left, [and] it seemed to them a flood has taken all the papers. But maybe there are one or two left for them to get their news from. Altogether, everybody is shocked and there is fear in people's hearts as what this is a prelude to, what actions [the conservatives] are going to take by this preparation."

Lawyers say that the mass press closure has no legal basis and may not be sustainable in courts. Ne'mat Ahmadi, a lawyer in Tehran, told RFE/RL that the conservatives -- who have accused the papers of lies and slander -- still must prove that the publications have broken the law. Ahmadi:

"One of the judiciary's responsibilities in this country is to enforce appropriate laws [which are] introduced to the parliament. But appropriate legal action does not include closure of newspapers until it has been proven in court that they have broken the law and are guilty. [Until then,] we cannot consider anyone a criminal."

He continued:

"There are laws which specifically govern the press and these papers have not been served a summons. [The reformist papers which I represent as a lawyer] Gozareh-e Rooz or Azar-e Azadegan have not been served a summons and just because there are a few complaints against them does not mean they have committed a crime."

In the press closures, reformist newspapers were ordered to stop printing until they receive further notice. Lawyers say that from a legal point of view such an order is meaningless because the papers are not yet guilty of a crime. But Ahmadi says that the stop-print orders have had a chilling effect on the print shops that produce the papers, making it unlikely that the papers can come out while their cases are being considered.

That may leave reformists few options except to wage a lengthy court battle to reopen the papers. The battle is likely to grow into a major political showdown, as several key government officials have said they will not be an instrument to shutting down the country's free press.

One of those officials is liberal Minister of Culture Attaollah Mohajerani, who recently vowed he would resign rather than preside over the banning of newspapers. The Culture Ministry has handed out scores of newspaper licenses since the election of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami three years ago.

Reformist journalists are urging Khatami himself to consider the press closures as a milestone threat to his often repeated calls for Iran to become a more open society. One journalist, Ahmad Zeydabadi, told RFE/RL's Persian Service from Tehran that any protest resignations by Mohajerani alone would not be enough to stop conservative attacks. Zeydabadi:

"If Mr. Mohajerani were to resign there would be no significant effect or reaction to such an action. It might even encourage those people to go more on the offensive. I think if things move toward the dismantling or loss of everything [the reformists] have gained so far, Mr. Mohajerani should harmonize his actions with Mr. Khatami and I think Mr. Khatami has to step aside. I think this would be more appropriate than Mr. Mohajerani's resignation."

President Khatami has not spoken directly about the mass newspaper closures other than to appeal for calm. In remarks yesterday, he said Iran needs calm and tranquility, especially at the start of a new parliament.

But earlier this weekend, the president reaffirmed his support for reform, saying leaders must recognize individual rights and freedoms when safeguarding religious and revolutionary values.

As the prospects of a major political battle over the press closures now loom large, Iran's streets have remained calm. In a first public protest early Tuesday, a thousand students rallied peacefully outside Tehran University's student hostels. No violence was reported.

So far, that is nothing like the anger which greeted the closure last July of the country's then leading reformist paper, "Salam." Back then, when students rallied to protest that paper's closure, they were attacked by hardline vigilantes supported by police. The attack led to countrywide protests which spilled over into rioting, with a number of people killed in the troubles.

As conservatives and reformists now consider their next moves in the run-up to the new parliament, memories of those riots -- the worst since the Islamic Republic's founding -- cannot be far from either side's thoughts.