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Iran reformers see threat to 'Khatami thaw'

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, June 10 (Reuters) - Iran's powerful conservative establishment has prepared new measures that would gut nascent press freedoms and reverse the ``Khatami thaw'' settling over the Islamic republic.

Draft revisions to the current press laws, now circulating among hardline members of parliament, would tighten significantly already tough limits on freedom of expression, choking off President Mohammad Khatami's attempts to introduce a civic society within Iran's existing Islamic system.

Approval of the measures, which is far from certain, would be a major blow to Khatami, who drafted the current law 14 years ago as Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance and has gently nurtured cultural liberalisation ever since.

It would also strip the reformers of their most powerful weapon as they prepare for parliamentary elections next March that could break the hold of hardliners.

``The survival of democracy and the (Khatami) movement depends on strengthening civic institutions,'' said influential writer Abbas Abdi. ``One of the most important institutions is the press, and it should not be a victim of these factional battles.''

Conservatives say the measures are necessary to protect the system from Western-style abuses.

``By amending the press laws, parliament will cut off the hands of the deviants in their cultural banditry,'' Hamid Reza Taraqi, hardline deputy from Mashhad, said. ``Our people understand that on the table of cultural and political tolerance there is (also) freedom of conspiracy.''

Isfahan deputy Hasan Kamran, a sponsor of the bill, said pro-reform newspapers ``aimed to overthrow the whole system.''

The draft amendments, obtained by Reuters, appear aimed at returning Iran's lively domestic press to bureaucratic and legal controls more reminsicent of the Soviet bloc than of the emerging ``Islamic democracy'' sought by Khatami.

Key proposals include:

- Requiring all journalists to seek state permission to pratice their profession.

- Empowering an existing oversight body to close a publication indefinitely, pending investigation of alleged violations of law.

- Strengthening conservative control of press monitoring boards.

- Making individual journalists, not their publishers as is now the case, legally responsible for all writing and barring the use of pseudonyms.

- Developing ``new guidelines'' for the distribution of foreign newspapers and magazines within Iran.

- Barring publication of any item that violates ill-defined ``Islamic values'' or national security or tarnishes the reputation of senior Shi'ite Moslem clerics.

Iran's reformers, including senior aides to Khatami, are outraged by the proposals, and even many conservative publications, hoping to carve a place in the new Iran, are having second thoughts. No date has been set for debate of the measures in parliament, a conservative stronghold.

Shaban Shahidi, the liberal deputy culture minister for press affairs, predicted that attempts to muzzle the press, which has largely rallied behind the reforms, would backfire.

``We believe that those MPs who, during the (failed) impeachment of the Guidance minister supported the cultural policies of the Khatami administration, have understood the message of May 23, 1997. They intend to grant more legal freedoms to the press,'' he said.

Conservatives hold the press largely responsible for what they see as a weakening of Islamic and revolutionary values and the erosion of their grip on power under Khatami's reforms, particularly expanded political participation.

Pressure from the press recently forced the resignation of the head of the security services over a string of mystery murders of dissident politicians and intellectuals. In February, pro-reform candidates used the press effectively to capture an overwhelming majority of seats in Iran's first local elections.

The press has also fanned popular demands for greater social and political freedom and publicised once taboo subjects, including challenges from within the ranks of Islamic scholars to Iran's system of supreme clerical rule.

Many conservative clerics, who dominate the mosques and control the pulpit for the public Friday prayers sermons, have sought to stem the tide with arguments that freedom under Islam cannot be absolute. The prayer leader in Kerman recently said journalists who violate ``islamic principles'' deserve to die.

Others have withdrawn to their seminaries and libraries, returning to the time-honoured Shi'ite tradition of leaving politics to laymen, a trend that analysts say looks likely to accelerate in the face of growing demands by the public at large for more say over their own destinies.


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