Middle East

Iranian Press Under Increased Pressure to Portray Government in a Favorable Light

The Iranian press enjoyed some freedom under the previous reformist government of Mohammad Khatami from 1997-2005, but even then the hard-line judiciary shut down scores of titles and detained dozens of journalists. (Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP-Getty Images)

"Propaganda against the system," "agitation of public opinion," "blasphemy," "cultural invasion," "preparation for soft revolution," "creeping coup," and "espionage"—these are some of the accusations that Iranian journalists have long been faced with in their quest for the free flow of information.

Any publication deemed guilty of any one of these "crimes"  at the very least has been banned.

This view of the press has a long history dating back to before Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979, but in recent months the "independent" press has faced increased pressure.

Masoud Bastani, Soheil Assefi, Farshad Ghorban Pour, Foroouzan Assef Nakhai, Bahman Ahmadi Amooi, Ali Farahbakhsh, and the renowned journalistic figure and head of the Committee for the Defense of Prisoners' Rights, Emadoddin Baghi, have been among the press staff in Tehran that have recently felt the heat.

The reinvigorated press limitations, however, have not been confined to the capital. In Iran's Kurdistan province, Ako Kurdnasab has recently been sentenced to six months in prison.

In the northern province of Gilan, Arash Bahmani, editor of the regional weekly Gilen-e Behtar has been sentenced to 16 months in prison on charges of "disseminating misinformation" and "insulting the holy Imam Mehdi" (the 12th imam of the Shiites). Two student journalists, Kouhzad Esmaili and Babak Mehdi Zadeh, were each sentenced to four month in jail on similar charges.

In the southern city of Ahvaz, Abolfaz Abedini and Kasra Alla Savand, reporters with the provincial weekly Bahar-e Ahvaz were arrested on Nov. 13. They face charges of "propaganda against the system" and "agitation of public opinion."

Abolfazl Abedini, one of the very few journalists in contact with the foreign-based Persian media, reported on the recent continuous strike of hundreds of Ahvaz Neishekar Haft Tappeh factory workers who were protesting their low and delayed wages.

The Islamic Republic says that it welcomes criticism, and generally accuses the arrested journalists of undermining the system or of blasphemy. It also posits that the arrested journalists undergo a legal process; a claim much debated by human rights activists.

Most of the aforementioned journalists have recently been accused of launching a "creeping coup" against the system by Culture Minister Hossein Saffar Harandi. However, a closer look at the current political atmosphere of the country reveals a creeping coup against the press.

"The wave of suppression against the flow of information that had been initiated years ago has intensified during the recent months," says Reza Moini, the Iran researcher with the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "The clampdown is aimed at silencing the journalists and … isolating the part of the society which seeks to obtain hard news; a class of the society which can be critical in determining the political future of the country."

This is not a new phenomenon in Iran.

"The suppression of the media in Iran is a result of the censor tradition in Iran which has always been there," says Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi "However, the approach has reached new horizons under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

One result of this approach is an apparent tightening of the limitations on the press.

Communicating with the foreign-based media is among the elements that have been described as being "beyond the red line."

Many critics view the press situation as a result of Ahmadinejad's shortcomings in the field of politics and economy. The president's hard-line policies have put Iran in a standoff with members of the international community, and earned it two sets of economic and political sanctions from the United Nations Security Council. Those sanctions together with what critics describe a "mishandling of the economy" has led to a deterioration of the already unstable economic situation, including a 20 percent rise in inflation.

Experts believe these blows to the economy will fuel dissatisfaction with the ruling regime.

"And that is exactly why Ahmadinejad's government fears a free delivering of the news," deduces Sadegh Ziba Kalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, in an interview with the American-funded, Prague-based Radio Farda. "[They are afraid of] divulging such weaknesses and putting further distance between the government and people."

Analyzing Ahmadinejad's approach to Iran's nuclear program or gasoline rationing have been among the red lines that Iranian journalists must not cross—limitations that have been slowly tightening as critical internal political events draw near.

In March 2008, Iranians will cast their ballots in significant parliamentary elections that before anything else will be a yes/no election on Ahmadinejad's fiery approach. And while the president's allied candidates experienced a firm "no" in the previous less influential yet symbolically telling city election, the hard-line government refuses to take the risk of losing a ballot in the upcoming bigger event.

"If the press intends to boldly portray the shortcomings of Ahmadinejad's government, particularly reaching to economic facts, it could have a determining impact on the path which the parliamentary election will be taking," says Ziba Kalam. "The conservative bloc which possesses the power currently cannot afford an unsuccessful image prior to elections."

A look at the political leanings of journalists Bastani, Farahbakhsh, and Baghi, among others, reveals that all these Iranian journalists are victims of a clampdown aimed at curbing what hard-line advocates view as a possible revival of the reform movement.

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