Middle East

Voice of Iran? Political Pawn?

Iran's Reformist Press

Ayatollah Khomeini, media critic.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was famously obsessed with the news media. Sources close to Khomeini say that he obsessively read Iranian and international press reports until poor eyesight forced him to rely on his daughters for summaries. And while Khomeini quickly ensured that Iran's most-circulated newspapers would report the news the way he wanted it reported, he also tolerated a certain amount of criticism of Iran's social ills in the press and claimed to rely on it for a sense of what the Iranian people were thinking. So, in the absence of real political debate, the Iranian press became the only legitimate public forum for debate, however limited, in Iranian political life.

When reformist President Mohammad Khatami came to power on May 23, 1997, the stringent laws restricting the issuance of new publishing licenses were relaxed and more than 500 new licenses were issued in less than six months. In February, 1998, Iran's first reformist newspaper, Jameah (Society), began publishing out of Tehran. It was an overnight success. Within a few months, more than 50 reformist newspapers and weeklies began publishing around the country. For almost two years, the Iranian press enjoyed an unprecedented freedom to reflect public opinion and to conduct investigations into government corruption.

Most of the prominent reformist journalists were former radicals within the revolutionary movement. They included former revolutionary guards, intelligence officers, and students who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 and held 52 embassy officials hostage until 1981. The conservative clergy, who had battled the radicals for influence during Khomeini's lifetime, ostracized many of the radicals within Khomeini's inner circle after the Ayatollah's death in 1989. For eight years, the radicals found themselves shut out of Iran's political process. Privately, the erstwhile revolutionaries say those eight years gave them an opportunity to rethink their old ideas and led them to the conclusion that democracy is the only solution for Iran's future. In public, the "reformist" journalists targeted the conservative clergy, their old opponents in government, who by that time completely dominated the courts and the security forces.

Although the newspapers observed the "red lines"—the thresholds of governmental tolerance of dissent—and did not criticize Ayatollah Khomeini or Ayatollah Khamenei, his successor as Iran's "Supreme Leader," they lambasted every other conservative politician who was involved in the Islamic Republic's power structure. Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was a favorite target. Two journalists, Akbar Ganji, a former revolutionary guard, and Emadeddin Baghi, a former cleric, revealed in 1999 that Rafsanjani's Ministry of Intelligence was involved in killing more than 50 opposition leaders and intellectuals over the years. Both journalists are currently in jail.

But the "golden era of Iranian journalism" lasted only a few years. The hardliners' media, most importantly state television and Kayhan (The Universe) newspaper—the publisher of which is chosen by the Supreme Leader; accused the reformist journalists of being heretics, infidels, anti-Islamic, and, worse, anti-revolutionary. Each of these accusations carries a heavy sentence according to the Iranian law.

The 1998 closure of Jameah five months after its first issue appeared on newsstands signaled the end of Iran's brief flirtation with an open press. Weeks after Jamea began publication, hired hoodlums gathered outside its offices and assaulted Editor in Chief Mashallah Shamsolvaezin. The paper was shut down soon after. But Jameah's editors, who had once been part of the state apparatus, were savvy enough to expect that their paper would be shut down, and had prepared for the eventuality by buying scores of publishing licenses. Immediately after Jammeah was closed, it was immediately replaced by Aftab-e Emrooz (Today's Sun). The new paper, in turn, was closed down after its first issue appeared. Toos, named after a city in northern Iran, quickly followed. Soon after the paper's closure, four reformist journalists—Hamid Reza Jalaipour, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, Muhammad Sadeq Javadi-Hessar, and Ibrahim Nabavi—were jailed for a short time on charges of "publishing articles against national security and general interests." Soon after their release, they published Neshat (Joy) and Asr-e Azadegan (Time of the Free). A pattern emerged. Since 1997, the government has closed down at least 52 reformist newspapers, many of them new incarnations of previously banned publications.

The emergence of the free press resulted in landslide victory of the reformists in February 2000 parliamentary elections. In an unprecedented move, the editors of nine reformist newspapers made a list of their favorite 30 candidates from Tehran (the capital's quota in the parliament) and published the list in their papers. Almost all candidates who got into the parliament from Tehran were those who were on the joint list of the reformist press. Rafsanjani, who aspired to be the speaker of the Parliament, received only enough votes to rank 32nd of the candidates who ran—not enough to be elected. The hard-liners in charge of the powerful Council of Guardians, which supervises the elections in the country, blamed Khatami's minister of interior, who was in charge of the elections, of vote rigging and reshuffled the votes to give Rafsanjani enough to rank number 20 on the list.

Consecutive victories of the reformists in every election frightened the hard-liners. In April 2000, in a Friday prayers ceremony at a mosque in Tehran, Ayatollah Khamenei told worshippers, "I suspect around 20 publications are acting as the enemy's 'fifth column.' We should do something about it." Within a few days, an all-out assault against the press had begun. Seventeen publications were "temporarily" shut down. Dozens of journalists were arrested and sent to jail. Since that speech 43 publications have been closed.

Two years later, many of these newspapers are still "temporarily" closed. But a few reformist papers can still operate. The most important reformist publication today is Norooz (New Day), which is published by Mohsen Mirdamadi, one of the students who took American diplomats hostage in 1979 and currently a reformist MP from Tehran. On Dec. 25, 2001, Mirdamadi had to appear in court because of 300 complaints against his newspapers. Many of the complaints came from the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Revolutionary Court, and the Islamic Republic of Iran's Broadcasting Corporation —all prominent conservative organizations.

Today, journalists at Norooz expect the paper to be shut down soon. We may be exonerated of 299 of the 300 charges, but there is always one that results in a closure." says Hassan (not his real name) who has lost his job seven times in the past four years because of government crackdowns and currently works for Norooz. But Mirdamadi and his staff are prepared—they already have another publishing license ready. Rooz-e No (New Day) will replace Norooz immediately if the paper is closed.

The future of Iranian reformist press is as uncertain as the reform process itself. Barring any future widespread crackdown, it looks as though the reformist press will continue to eke out a tenuous existence, as banned newspapers continue to rise from the ashes in new incarnations after government crackdowns. Khatami was elected five years ago on promises of economic reforms and the creation of a civil society with more freedom of expression. To date, almost none of his promises have materialized. The reformists blame his lack of success on the hard-liners' obstructive tactics. "People are being getting tired of the constant bickering between the hardliners and reformists," Hassan says. "And the press has become a pawn in this game. The only way forward is to listen to people and be their voice. Otherwise that's the end of the reformist movement and press freedom in this country."

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