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Sehaty Foreign Exchange

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Pressures of the press

The New York Times
Sunday September 5, 199

As editor of China's leading English-language newspaper, Jonathan Fenby developed a reputation for independent reporting and frank debate. Last month he was fired. Hamid Reza Jalaipur founded Iran's first prodemocracy newspaper. He was jailed last year for printing an editorial critical of the Government. Herewith, the two discuss what it's like to put out a newspaper where the press is not free.

Fenby: I think that Governments all through the world try to influence media -- from the Western model, where spin doctors put over a certain line, to monolithic political societies, where the media are expected to perform a role laid down by the Government.

Jalaipur: We are under two sorts of pressure. One comes from a part of Iranian state structure that is not accountable. And the second is not state pressure -- it's cultural pressure. But for three or four years now, there has been a really independent media in Iran. And our readers encourage us. Last year I was in prison because we published an essay criticizing a high official, and many of our readers protested for our release.

Fenby: In Hong Kong, one of the most important things since the hand-over to China -- and we put a lot of emphasis on this at The South China Morning Post -- has been a strong legal system, both for the good of Hong Kong and the protection of the media. Particularly when you've got a weak political society.

Jalaipur: O.K., but here the situation is a little bit different. Our legal system is not bad. But they are trying now through Parliament to pass a new bill to have more control over writers and editors. If they pass this bill, we will not be able to do anything. The difficulty is that part of the Iranian state is under the control of conservatives, and they do not believe in law in a modern way. They think human rights are a conspiracy of Western countries. So they do not want us to support these things in our newspaper.

Fenby: I imagine a situation like that can make you feel isolated, as though you're fighting a battle on your own. Does it influence the way you report a story?

Jalaipur: Oh, no. We are not isolated socially. We have many supporters. In political circles we are afraid of those officials that try to use mass protests against us, even encourage people to attack us in the street. But we can't predict that, so we write what we believe in.

Fenby: During the first six months of this year people were saying: "The Post backed the Government in colonial days. Why are you so critical now?" And sometimes you have to trim your sails. It's an interesting question, whether the freedom of the press is, as they say, like virginity -- absolute or not there at all -- or whether there may be occasions when it's better to live to fight another day. Of course, the danger is, if you keep making compromises, you find that when the day comes you actually aren't in a position to fight then, either.

Jalaipur: I have a different angle on all that. A couple years ago we announced our commitment to the principles of a civic society, so we cannot compromise. Last year ours was the only newspaper that was progressive in terms of political development -- our audience was one million people. One morning our building was captured by the Special Police. They blindfolded me and put me into a jail cell for 27 days. These days there are five newspapers like Neshat.

Fenby: The situation in Hong Kong was night and day from what you've gone through, but at the time of the hand-over in 1997, a lot of people thought it would go downhill. I made every effort I could to keep prodemocracy politicians writing in the paper, to keep independent reporting. I was told by one American editor that I was the canary in the coal mine. In the first 18 months there was no attempt to sway us one way or another. This year there were numerous approaches, from senior officials and business people.

Jalaipur: Three weeks ago there was a university crisis in Teheran. Many of these religious people came around with guns to scare our writers. We phoned the Interior Ministry, and the Special Police came and dispersed them. But the point is that our people are very swayed by these religious sensitivities the same way your people are swayed by their patriotism.

Fenby: Before the return to China, a couple of local journalists left the paper because of family pressure. Since then, one or two staff members who wrote sensitive stories preferred to run them without their byline. Part of my job was to say, "We are in a unique historic situation, and we've got to make the most of this." But of course it was difficult to tell people, "Stick your necks out." Because it's their necks.

Jalaipur: I do not have such a problem with morale. Our writers love trying to influence the Iranian society toward democratic goals. We are under threat, but we are very close. And feedback for us is very important and it forms a sort of indirect protection for us.

Fenby: I was in a much less tense situation than you are, but I think any time you're in disagreement with the Government you have to make sure you have your facts right and then stand your ground. But do so in a way that says: "We're not out for confrontation for confrontation's sake. We are standing by what we think is right. We're journalists." It really can work.

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