Khamenei boosts hardliners in media battle
By William Samii
Prague, 3 June 1999 (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) -- Iran's Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently sent a message which can be regarded
as the opening salvo of a new effort by hardliners to tighten their control
over Iran's broadcast and print media.
The battle over the media is likely to gain significance in the coming
months as Iran approaches parliamentary elections due early next year,
and control of the media could help decide the outcome of the polls.
Speaking to an audience of Iranian publishers last month, Khamenei said:
"The enemy is trying to attack the political system in the Islamic
Republic with the aid of cultural devices." He warned that what he
called disseminators of philosophical or political thought may be knowingly
or unknowingly pursuing a plot for sabotage and subversion.
Khamenei called broadcast media a particular concern and said the law
banning satellite dishes must remain in effect. State radio quoted him
as also saying that Tehran should identify ways to prevent foreign satellite
transmissions proportional to the advance of technology.
The supreme leader's remarks appear to be both an endorsement of new
restrictions on Iran's divided and outspoken media and a rejection of
liberal Iranians' calls for still greater openness.
His statements come as a top liberal official, Minister of Islamic Culture
and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani, told students at Shahroud University
east of Tehran recently that the government of relatively moderate President
Mohammad Khatami disagrees with the satellite receiver ban.
Mohajerani's words immediately drew sharp rebukes from conservatives.
The influential Hojatoleslam Torabi, the Friday prayer leader for the
southwestern city of Kuhdasht, asked: "His excellency the minister
thinks this is Europe or America?" He added: "This is a system,
an Islamic system. And these people, they are a Muslim people."
The hardline camp unveiled its strategy for tightening controls on media
at the annual Voice And Vision festival in Zibakenar. State radio and
television chief Ali Larijani said that to provide an alternative to foreign
sources he will expand official satellite, radio, and television networks.
Liberal critics have often said that state outlets should provide better
and more varied programs rather than increasing their current diet of
broadcasts. The weekly "Azadi" accused the state channels at
the end of last month of repeating the same films and programs, and said
many are not interesting.
The supreme leader's most recent intervention in the debate gives an
additional boost to the conservatives because it follows his re-appointment
of Larijani to another five-year term on May 26. The re-appointment assures
that conservatives will keep control of the airwaves as Iran's most important
form of media. Iranians rely on television and radio for most of their
information because newspapers and print media have a limited circulation
outside the main cities.
The hardliner's initiative to tighten their grip on broadcast media
comes as they also renew pressure on the print media, which began with
the closure of the liberal "Zan" daily in March.
Last month, conservative judges summoned Former Islamic Culture and
Guidance ministry official Issa Saharkhizon on charges of allowing publication
of a special issue of the banned "Zan."
By the end of May, the apparent crackdown extended to the arrest of
Fereidoun Verdinejad, the managing director of the state news agency IRNA
and director of the English-language "Iran Daily" and Persian-language
"Iran." His arrest was in connection with a cartoon his newspaper
ran showing a television serving as a toilet's cistern.
At the same time, Mohammad Reza Zohdi, editor of "Arya," was
arrested on charges of disclosing military information. Others in print
media summoned for hearings included Latif Safari of "Neshat"
and Said Hajjarian of "Imruz." Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri, who
publishes "Khordad," has been summoned by the Special Court
for the Clergy.
These media-related events can be seen in the context of Iran's continuing
factional struggle and are not completely unexpected. But their significance
is likely to grow as Iran faces parliamentary elections in April of 2000,
when control of the media could help decide the races.
In recent weeks, the parliament itself has come down on both sides of
the battle over the media. A little over a month ago, parliament decided
against giving Mohajerani a vote of no-confidence. At that point it seemed
the body was taking a popular stance and siding with the reformists, perhaps
thinking the issue was one on which votes would be cast in the election.
Thus, it appeared that the body, and its large block of independent members,
was turning away from its conservative tendencies.
But last week, the very same parliament re-elected the conservative
Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, with 161 out of 246 votes. Then 228
parliamentarians signed a letter in which they declared that, quoting:
"like the leader, they too sense the cultural inroad of the enemy
in the form of a plot for transformation and overthrow of the system ...
[and] ... they will spare no effort to foil such a conspiracy."
Such readiness by parliamentarians to embrace the liberal camp in one
media battle only to endorse the conservatives in the next makes it extremely
difficult to predict the outcome of next year's legislative poll. But
it may be one sign that parliament, once a bastion of the conservative
camp, is increasingly moved as much by political opportunism and expediency
ahead of the upcoming elections as by ideology.
(William Samii is a regional specialist with RFE/RL's Communications