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Iran: Supreme Leader Prohibits Relaxation Of Press Laws

The recent election of a parliament considered to be predominantly reformist in Iran brought expectations of increased openness in the media, and debate on the issue was supposed to begin this week. But Iran's highest political and religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has decreed that the restrictive press laws now in effect must remain. RFE/RL regional specialist Bill Samii reports.

Prague, 8 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- After Iran's new, reformist parliament was sworn in at the end of May, its speaker, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, said the first priority would be a review of the laws governing the press. The previous, hard-line parliament -- stung by unfavorable press coverage during the campaign -- had enacted a restrictive law just before it left office.

A debate on the press law was expected to start on Sunday (Aug 6). The state news agency reported that parliament wished to amend the law in order to, as the agency put it, "ensure freedoms for a society which is placing heavier emphasis on civil liberties."

But in Iran's political system, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has effective veto power over all measures, and he exercised it on the press law debate. In a letter read out to the parliament as the debate was beginning, Khamenei warned: "Should the enemies of Islam, the revolution, and the Islamic system take over or infiltrate the press, a great danger would threaten the security, unity and the faith of the people and, therefore, I cannot allow myself and other officials to keep quiet in respect of this crucial issue."

Khamenei's statement went on to say: "The current [press] law, to a degree, has been able to prevent the appearing of this great calamity, and [therefore], its amendment and similar actions that have been anticipated by the Majlis [that is, parliament] committee are not legitimate and not in the interest of the country and the system."

RFE/RL's Persian Service asked reformist journalist Masud Behnoud why the press law was made so strict in the first place. Behnoud said: "When the hard-liners discovered that they were the losers of the last elections, they made a few major changes to the press law at the end of the fifth parliament. These changes were based on one point only. They discovered they lost the election solely because of the press. Therefore, the press has the power of making up peoples' minds and can be the determining factor. They observed the effect of the press campaign and advertisements in the past months. They changed the press law so that these things will not take place."

A total of 23 Iranian publications have been closed since April. Furthermore, in the last week, the Press Supervisory Board issued written warnings to 14 weeklies and a monthly for such transgressions as publishing pictures and articles about movie stars from the pre-revolutionary period, giving excessive attention to Western and Indian actors, printing sensational headlines, and disregarding government guidelines. Trials of journalists continue.

Reformists had hoped to reverse this trend by amending the press law, and when Khamenei's letter eliminated that possibility, they were outraged. Scuffles broke out in the chamber, and many deputies walked out in protest.

Former parliamentarian Qasem Sholeh Saadi told RFE/RL's Persian Service that he believes simply shutting off the debate on a subject is not permissible.

"It is the right of parliamentarians to request a change in the parliamentary charter and not that of the [parliament's] praesidium. The praesidium has sworn to abide by the charter, remain neutral, and observe the rights of parliamentarians and not violate the law."

Parliament speaker Karrubi, however, said that the supreme leader's action was legal, underlining the Supreme Leader's strong authority.

Khamenei's action was not unexpected. In a speech at the end of last month, he had accused reformist journalists of treason and of harming the national interest. And earlier in July, senior seminarians in the holy city of Qom had expressed their concern about efforts to amend the press law.

Allegations that the domestic media were cooperating with foreigners were repeated yesterday (Monday), and Tehran Justice Department chief Hojatoleslam Abbasali Alizadeh said that the courts would work hard to eliminate the alleged cooperation. According to state radio, he said: "Some of these elements are at the origin of propaganda campaigns against the regime and cooperate with foreign media such as the Voice of America and Israeli radio, the BBC and Radio Free Iran [RFE/RL's Persian Service]."

All these actions, while not entirely unexpected, come at a sensitive time. President Mohammad Khatami, who represents Iranian reformists, has just declared his intention to run for president again in May 2001. State broadcast media are heavily biased against the reformists, as are most of the remaining high-circulation publications. Without unfettered access to friendly media, Khatami will have an uphill battle.

(The Persian Service's Mina Baharmast and RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin contributed to this report.)