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Iranian pro-Khatami press under increasing pressure

TEHRAN, May 30 (AFP) - The brief detention of the head of Iran's official news agency was portrayed in the Iranian press Sunday as the latest twist in a campaign of pressure by conservatives against reformist media, less than a year away from parliamentary elections.

IRNA director Fereydoun Verdinejad was released from a six-hour detention Saturday after posting a bail of 180 million rials (60,000 dollars at the official exchange rate).

A close associate of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and an ally of his successor, Mohammad Khatami, he faces some 30 complaints filed against him by state-run television, some 20 members of the conservative-dominated parliament and the police.

Although the exact details of the charges are not available, conservatives appear to have seized on a cartoon printed in a paper belonging to the IRNA group which showed a toilet with a television for a cistern, implying its programmes were only fit to be flushed away.

But Verdinejad supporters say the insult to conservative-run television is only a pretext.

According to the moderate Iran News paper, Verdinejad's main fault is that he has sided with the Executives of Construction Party -- the main moderate political party -- and with President Khatami.

Iran News sees Verdinejad's detention as a way for his adversaries to apply further pressure on Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani, who has worked actively to open up the press, and who is ultimately responsible for IRNA.

In a series of blows over recent months, Mohajerani has lost his vice-minister in charge of press matters, Ahmad Bourghani, as well the top official responsible for the local press, Issa Saharkhiz.

Saharkhiz appeared in court Sunday charged with disobeying a court order by allowing a newspaper to publish a special supplement while under a suspension order.

The moderate culture minister himself managed to escape an impeachment motion against him in early May, but remains a target of daily criticism by conservative circles who accuse his liberal politics of paving the way for the "enemies of the revolution."

The reformist Neshat (Vitality) paper, under a banner front-page headline on Sunday proclaiming "a new offensive against the press," splashed the photos of seven reformist editors whose papers the conservatives are gunning for.

All this is happening against the buildup to parliamentary elections in 10 months time, when reformers hope to capitalise on the popularity of Khatami and their resounding success in February's municipal elections in order to challenge the conservatives' hold on parliament

Under Khatami, elected two years ago, the Iranian press has enjoyed considerable freedom in accordance with his promises of relaxing censorship and strengthening civil institutions.

In the battle for hearts and minds, pro-Khatami papers have blossomed, enabling the president to get his message through to the public, especially the young and city-dwellers.

But the conservative hold on radio and television looks set to remain, with the reappointment Wednesday by spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of conservative Ali Larijani, to another five-year term at the head of state broadcasting.

"This trend is expected to continue until the sixth Majlis (parliament) election to be held in March 2000," Iran News predicted.

Verdinejad is by no means the only moderate journalist to be learning the truth of this the hard way.

Newspapers have reported that Mohammad Reza Zohdi, director of the reformist Arya paper was also detained Saturday for "defamation, spreading false information, and publishing confidential military information."

Said Hajarian, director of the pro-Khatami Sobh-e-Emruz and member of Tehran municipal council, is also about to be arrested, according to several papers.

Newspapers reported Saturday that a journalist with another paper close to the government, Jahan-e-Eslam, was detained Tuesday during a gathering of students and held for 35 hours.

Ahmad Zeidabadi, chief editor of the Azad newspaper, resigned recently after the director of the moderate daily was called before a revolutionary court. In an open letter to Khatami, Zeidabadi said he was stepping aside to prevent the closure of the newspaper.

And in February, Iran's revolutionary court ordered the closure of the women's paper Zan, led by moderate MP Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Rafsanjani.


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