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Iranian newspapers help reformers

Associated Press Writer

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - The newspapers hawked each morning at every street corner are the most immediate challenge to Iran's hard-liners, boldly redefining the limits of free speech and public debate. (Related photo)

Since moderate President Mohammad Khatami took office in August 1997, the first cautious pro-reform writings have matured into a barrage of critique and comment.

Once-unimaginable subjects, such as alleged corruption and questions about Islam's role in politics, are picked apart by a swelling number of newspapers.

``The right wing is frightened at what is happening,'' said Houshang Golshiri, an author and leading free speech advocate.

The hard-liners' attempts to muzzle or intimidate the press provide a window on the greater tug-of-war in Iran: a raw contest for power as Western-tinged civic values begin to separate from strict Muslim tenets.

The reforms, encouraged by Khatami and his allies, are perceived as a direct threat to those who enjoyed privileges under the intolerant rule of past years, including some politicians, hard-line mullahs and vigilante morality enforcers known as ``basiji.''

In much the same way devoted Communists lashed out during the death throes of the Soviet Union, Iranian conservatives have sought ways to hold back the seemingly inevitable changes.

The newly aggressive press is a convenient target. A series of unsolved killings of intellectuals in late 1998 was one of the first major issues to rally the reformist press.

Columnists have been demanding to know the full story behind the killings ever since the government admitted that members of Iran's intelligence service were responsible for the murders.

They also want to know more about what was officially described as a suicide by one of the alleged conspirators, Saeed Emami, while he was imprisoned after the killings.

In July, hard-liners closed the Salam newspaper for publishing a purported classified government document allegedly written by Emami while he was in the intelligence service.

Salam's closure was the catalyst for unprecedented, student-led protests. Thugs allegedly linked to the hard-liners attacked a dormitory during demonstrations that left at least three people dead and 1,200 arrested.

The unrest only served to strengthen the resolve of the press, which has demanded a full inquiry into the dormitory attack. One of the most defiant newspapers, Neshat, was the next to be closed.

A court pulled it off the stands Sept. 4 for insulting Islam and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was the third time the paper's editor, Hamid Reza Jalaipur, had his paper shut down since mid-1998. Each time, he came back with a new one under a new name.

``We cannot be silenced, just as the people's demands cannot be silenced,'' said Jalaipur, whose fourth newspaper - Akbar-e-Eqtesad or Economic News - began publication within days of Neshat's closure.

Jalaipur considers the current media pressure a peaceful parallel to the Islamic uprising that toppled the shah's monarchy in 1979.

``During the revolution - during the time of the shah - there was no other way for reform except violence,'' he said, sitting on a broken chair in his spartan office.

``The only thing was to mobilize the people outside of the political system. But after the revolution, there are many ways to come forward. Maybe it will turn (to violence) again if the conservatives control everything. Maybe, but I don't think so.''

Parliamentary elections planned for February could hand control to Khatami-backed forces and cement the efforts to allow greater social and media freedoms.

In the meantime, newspaper readers in a society where adult literacy stands at nearly 70 percent are devouring political commentary and interviews for about 6 cents a copy.

It's a head-spinning torrent of information after nearly two decades of predictable state-sanctioned media. Almost 20 dailies are published - a threefold increase from before Khatami's election.

``Everyone is so well-informed and talking about politics and reforms all the time now,'' said Ahmed Ibrahimi, a 20-year-old computer student outside a kiosk mobbed by people seeking newspapers before they sold out.

``The newspapers are the voice of the new revolution. Khatami is trying to make us a normal nation.''

But how Khatami's drive will eventually reshape Iran is still unclear. He has openly endorsed more secular freedoms, including a vibrant press, but every aspect of life still falls under Islamic doctrine as interpreted by the hard-line Khamenei.

Khamenei has suggested press freedoms are not incompatible with adherence to Islam. Still, he and the powerful overseers of Iran's Islamic codes can crack down on any paper perceived as undermining the faith. And since religion and political affairs are intertwined, any article has the potential to draw ire.

The conservatives have closed at least four reformist newspapers since Khatami took office two years ago. ``Conservatives have power inside the political system ... The reformers have social power,'' said Jalaipur.

``They don't have enough power inside the political system - yet, of course.''


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