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Leading Iranian daily banned as conservatives move to curb press

TEHRAN, July 7 (AFP) - Iran's state-run news agency announced the banning of one of the country's leading reformist newspapers Wednesday just hours after the country's conservative-dominated parliament approved fresh curbs on the press.

The Persian daily Salam, which is close to the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, was banned on a "verbal verdict of judicial authorities," the IRNA news agency quoted a "reliable source" as saying.

"The verdict was notified to newspaper officials on the telephone ordering them not to publish the daily until further notice," the source told the news agency.

The move came as the conservative parliament adopted in principle a sweeping new press law denounced by moderates as a bid to muzzle free speech ahead of next year's key parliamentary elections.

The bill, set to become law after a detailed examination by MPs in the next few days, would give Iran's hardline Islamic revolutionary courts jurisdiction over "national security-related" press offences, rather than referring such cases to press courts as in the past.

"The press is a gateway for cultural invasion, so let us take measures," conservative parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri said during debate on the bill, which was passed by 125 votes to 90 with 55 MPs absent.

"Some people, under the pretext of press freedom, are plotting against the system," he said.

For the first time individual journalists would be held legally responsible for violations of the law along with editors-in-chief.

The bill, put forward by 20 conservative MPs, would also deny press accreditation to any "counter-revoltuionary group or anyone not officially authorised," according to extracts published here.

The measure was denounced by top moderates including liberal Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani, a staunch ally of President Mohammad Khatami, who has put increased press freedom at the heart of his reform agenda.

"Freedom can not be repressed by any law," Mohajerani told the parliament. "We have to create laws in accordance with freedom, not freedom according to our laws."

The minister, who in May fended off a parliamentary challenge to oust him over charges he was failing to safeguard Islamic values, said the Iranian people should not be denied a right to be heard.

"If a crime is committed, we will take legal action, but let the people first say what they want to say," Mohajerani said.

Editors from a dozen newspapers said in a joint statement Tuesday that the bill would pave the way for "restrictions on the press, practically no job security for the country's journalists and preliminary steps for closure of various press institutions."

The freedoms currently enjoyed by the press constitute the "backbone of President Khatami's political and cultural development plans," they said.

Khatami and his entire cabinet last week expressed opposition to the bill, which they said could "further restrict freedom of expression."

(In a statement received by AFP in Nicosia, the international press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres said it had written to Khatami urging him to reject the bill being discussed by parliament.

("RSF requested President Khatami not to sign and endorse this amendment as the constitution entitles him to do," the watchdog said.

("This new bill is highly prejudicial to journalists' freedom and their right to inform freely," it said.) Although Iran's moderate press has enjoyed considerable freedom since Khatami's 1997 election, it has come under mounting pressure from hardliners within the regime in recent months.

In February a revolutionary court closed down the Zan newspaper after it published a new year's message from Farah Diba, the former empress and wife of the deposed shah.

The press crackdown comes ahead of next spring's key parliamentary elections, seen as crucial for the regime's conservatives after they were solidly defeated in February in Iran's first municipal elections since the 1979 Islamic revolution.


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