News

USIS Washington File

02 May 2000

Excerpts: RFE Report on Iran's Press Crackdown

(Closure of newspapers a prelude to World Press Freedom Day)(2210)

Advocates of a free press around the world are watching developments
in Iran as they recognize World Press Freedom Day.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO) is sponsoring the occasion, calling it "a day of action to
encourage and develop initiatives in favor of the freedom of the
press; (and) a day to assess the state of press freedom worldwide."

Iran's press court closed a number of Iranian publications April 23.
In ensuing days, several more publications were shut down, bringing
the total affected to 15.

A Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) analysis published May 1
quotes Iranian legal specialists saying that the closures may not be
sustainable in the courts.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seemed to telegraph his
government's intentions to pursue newspaper closures April 20 in a
speech in which he said the press is creating "anxiety, discord and
pessimism," according to the RFE/RL report.

Reacting to the Khamenei speech just after it was delivered,
then-State Department spokesman James Rubin said, "Any time a free
press is challenged anywhere in the world or any statements are made
that question that fundamental right of free expression that we
believe in, we're worried."

After the first round of press closures, Rubin told Washington
reporters April 24, "More than anything these actions are a blow to
the people of Iran, which have clearly expressed their desire for
openness and this kind of freedom in successive elections."

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said April 27, "I think we're
going to have to watch this very carefully. There really clearly are
two contending approaches for the future of Iran."

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has been reserved in his assessment
of the actions. The conservative weekly "Sobh" quoted him to say,
"Given the present political climate and the state of the media, I
already fear a shift toward secularism, and I am worried at some of
the materials published in the dailies associated with the reformist
camp."

Following are excerpts from the RFE/RL report:

(begin excerpts)

RFE/RL IRAN REPORT, Vol. 3, No. 17, 1 May 2000

RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC 

A Review of Developments in Iran Prepared by the Regional Specialists
of RFE/RL's Newsline Team.

In the early hours of Friday, 28 April, a demonstration at Tehran's
Shahid Beheshti University against the closure of 15 publications
turned violent. Demonstrators burned tires and attacked buildings for
about an hour, until Law Enforcement Forces and the Basij Resistance
Forces dispersed them. Until that time, protests against the press
closures had been fairly restrained.
 
On 23 April it was reported that a number of Iranian publications had
been closed by the Press Court. That original group included eight
dailies ("Guzarish-i Ruz," "Bamdad-i No," "Aftab-i Imruz," "Payam-i
Azadi," "Fath," "Arya," "Asr-i Azadegan," "Manateq-i Azad"), three
weeklies ("Payam-i Hajar," "Aban," "Arzesh"), and a monthly ("Iran-i
Farda"). "The Justice Department said the tone of material in those
papers had brought smiles to the faces of the enemies of the Islamic
Republic and hurt the feelings of devout Moslems at home and even the
leader of the Islamic revolution," "Tehran Times" reported on 25
April.

An unnamed Judiciary official explained in "Tehran Times" that a
committee formed to investigate the press concluded that "despite
frequent warnings given to them, they continued with their
anti-Islamic and anti-revolutionary activities." He added: "Those
newspapers which were suspended had supported the Jews accused of
spying for Israel despite many warnings given to them." The Judiciary
official warned that "we are also trying to detect the foreign links
of some of these newspapers."

And on 27 April, "Ava," a weekly from Najafabad, Isfahan Province, was
suspended on the orders of the Press Court. Charges against it include
libel, publishing false news disturbing to public opinion, and
desecrating Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Among the complainants are the Ministry of Intelligence and Security,
the Press Supervisory Board, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and
Guidance, the Special Court for the Clergy in Qom, and the Islamic
Revolution Guard Corps in Qom and Najafabad.

"Mosharekat," the Islamic Iran Participation Party's daily, was closed
on 27 April. A ban on "Sobh-i Imruz" was briefly waived by the Tehran
justice department, but it too was closed on 27 April. A Justice
Department statement explained that because license holder and
managing director Said Hajjarian is hospitalized, he could not carry
out his duties "while, so far, more than 90 penal cases have been
filed against the newspaper under Hajjarian." Among the charges
against "Sobh-i Imruz" are libel and spreading false information. The
daily will remain closed "until further notice."

The hardline weekly "Jebheh" was closed on 29 April. The Revolutionary
Court ordered its closure for repeated violations of the law and a
complaint from the Supreme National Security Council for illegally
publishing confidential documents, IRNA reported.

Iranian legal specialists told RFE/RL's Persian Service that this mass
press closure has no legal basis and may not be sustainable in courts.
Tehran lawyer Nemat Ahmadi explained that "One of the judiciary's
responsibilities in this country is to enforce appropriate laws [that
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."

Ahmadi continued: "There are laws which specifically govern the press
and these papers have not been served a summons. [The reformist papers
that I represent as a lawyer] 'Guzarish-i Ruz' or 'Asr-i 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."
 
Last July, Iranian students' protests against the closure of "Salam"
resulted in a week of violence and demonstrations following a
crackdown by police and hardline vigilantes. This time there was no
violence until 28 February, due to calls for calm from the Office for
Strengthening Unity, the main pro-Khatami student group. There were
peaceful protests against the newspaper closures, however, in Tehran,
Hamedan, Bandar Abbas, Mashhad, Sanandaj, and Kashan.

Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, director of the banned publications
"Guzarish-i Ruz" and "Hoviat-i Khish" (banned in summer 1999) and
leader of the Islamic Union of Students and Graduates, told RFE/RL's
Persian Service that the students want to avoid unrest. He explained
that "Every society has its own threshold for bearing with oppression
and force, they will be patient up to a point. Last year they were
patient and they are not scared now. They want to maintain unity and
order."

The press crackdown did not come without a warning. Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's 20 April speech served as one. Khamenei
warned that the West first attacked Iran via its radio stations, but
now it is building a "stronghold" in Iran. He said the press is
creating anxiety, discord, and pessimism. " It seems as to if 10 or 15
newspapers are being directed from the same center to publish articles
with similar headlines. They make mountains out of molehills ... kill
the hope among the youth ... weaken the people's trust ... offend and
insult." The Supreme Leader added that President Mohammad Khatami is
unhappy with the press too. "We are trying to stop the enemy from
realizing his propaganda conspiracy."

Some have suggested that Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance
Ataollah Mohajerani should resign to protest the publication bans,
partly because it his ministry that issues press licenses. Indeed,
only days before the mass closure was announced, a meeting between
Mohajerani and 22 publishers and chief editors, as well as IRNA
officials, was held. At this meeting, Mohajerani said "if pressures
are exerted to close down the newspapers, then I would be forced into
becoming an instrument for closing them or resigning, in that case I
would prefer to tender my resignation," IRNA reported.

Journalist Ahmad Zeydabadi told RFE/RL's Persian Service a protest
resignation by Mohajerani would not be enough to stop conservative
attacks. Zeydabadi explained that "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."

Khatami's comments on the press closures and the general atmosphere
have been indirect. During a 23 April speech, he said that "The
political tendencies and groups, by relying on religious sanctities
and everything which is held in respect and honor by the people, take
unfair advantage of the situation to enhance factional interests and
specific [political] tendencies." And on 29 April, Khatami said that
"The Iranian people are revolutionary and will remain revolutionary.
They want a religious and Islamic state and no one can hinder the
nation's process of reforms."

According to the conservative weekly "Sobh," Khatami said "I was the
one who started the reforms, but they (those who advocate much bolder
steps) are trying to leave me behind. Given the present political
climate and the state of the media, I already fear a shift toward
secularism, and I am worried at some of the materials published in the
dailies associated with the reformist camp. I am also disappointed by
the actions of some journalists who have broken all norms and bounds."

If the intention of closing newspapers is to block commentary that
might affect the upcoming second round of voting (see below), the
authorities may decide to close even more publications. The sympathies
of provincial newspapers on national and international issues are as
varied as those in Tehran. They get far less attention in the Western
media, and the provinces themselves are virtually ignored by all but a
few Western journalists, so they may be safe for the time being. But
if the now unemployed Tehran journalists and commentators seek a voice
in the provincial media, these provincial journals may soon suffer a
similar fate. (Bill Samii)

WORLD CONCERNED BY IRANIAN PRESS REPRESSION. 
Until Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's speech and the
subsequent press closures and arrests, some foreign observers had been
encouraged by what they saw in Iran. For example, the head of the
French senate's foreign relations and defense committee, Xavier de
Villepin, said that democracy was progressing in Iran, IRNA reported
on 19 March.

But now, foreign observers are reacting with concern to events in
Iran. German government spokeswoman Charima Reinhardt said Bonn is
paying close attention to the conflict between reformists and
hardliners in Iran, and it hopes that President Mohammad Khatami will
find the right way to continue reforms.

The International Secretariat of Amnesty International called for the
immediate release of journalist Akbar Ganji, who was imprisoned on 22
April. The Amnesty statement, which was released on 27 April, also
expressed concern about the recent imprisonment of newspapermen Latif
Safari and Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, as well as an outstanding warrant
for Hojatoleslam Hassan Yusefi-Eshkevari. The statement said that
"Amnesty International considers these arrests and the closure of
newspapers as a serious violation of freedom of expression and other
basic human rights."

When Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke about the press on 20
April (see above), U.S. State Department Spokesman James Rubin reacted
by saying that "Any time a free press is challenged anywhere in the
world or any statements are made that question that fundamental right
of free expression that we believe in, we're worried." "Tehran Times"
responded that "Washington is indeed worried about losing its bases in
the Iranian press." It went on to say that "shedding crocodile tears
by the U.S. at this juncture indicates that Washington is only worried
about losing its mouthpieces in Iran."

After the first round of press closures, Rubin told reporters on 24
April that "More than anything, these actions are a blow to the people
of Iran, which have clearly expressed their desire for openness and
this kind of freedom in successive elections."

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on 27 April that "I think
we clearly are very concerned about what is happening there now, and
would hope that this is not the overwhelming trend, because we were
very encouraged by the Majlis elections and some of the other
activities there that indicated that there was a movement towards
reform." Albright went on to say that "I think we're going to have to
watch this very carefully. There really clearly are two contending
approaches for the future of Iran. And what -- in speeches that I've
given and in comments I have pointed out a number of times that those
who have voted for President Khatami or for the Majlis reform members
are the younger generation, and they are the future of Iran. And so we
will watch this very carefully."

(end excerpts)

(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)