an area of the map for world news.
of Iran? Political Pawn?
Iran's Reformist Press
Jan. 22, 2002
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
Khomeini, media critic.
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 dissentand 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) newspaperthe
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 journalistsHamid
Reza Jalaipour, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, Muhammad Sadeq Javadi-Hessar,
and Ibrahim Nabaviwere 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
rannot 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 preparedthey
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."