Muzzling the reformers' voice
April 19, 2000
T E H R A N
A BOLD press has, for some time, disguised the powerlessness of Iran's
reform movement. Liberal journalists have slammed into everything and everybody,
from the intelligence service to a former president to senior ayatollahs.
But this week the conservative establishment muzzled the flamboyant press,
sucking out the breath of reform. By April 27th, no fewer than 16 newspapers
and journals had been shut down by hardliners in the judiciary, leaving
the news-stands bare of all such trouble-makers.
The newspapers are accused of "disparaging Islam and the religious
elements of the Islamic Revolution". This has become the all-purpose
charge against any person or institution deemed to threaten the system.
The closures cannot usefully be challenged; the same hardline ideologues
who issued the order also dominate the appellate courts. The conservatives
have always had the power to silence the voice of reform. The question
was not whether they would use this power, but when. The February election,
at which pro-reform candidates captured a plurality of seats in the 290-member
parliament, seems to have been the deciding moment.
On April 20th, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, gave the
hardliners their green light. Some reformist newspapers, he declared, had
become "bases of the enemy". This enemy, he said, was the United
States, and he specified that 10-15 publications were responsible for the
treachery. Most Iranians brushed off this speech as the usual stuff, typically
peppered with references to journalists as "mercenary pen-pushers".
But newspaper editors took the ayatollah's remarks as their death warrant.
Several prominent journalists are now behind bars. Akbar Ganji, Iran's
most outspoken commentator, was imprisoned on April 22nd, in advance of
his trial on charges that he had defamed the security forces in a series
of articles that accused senior intelligence officials of plotting to kill
secular intellectuals. Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, the dean of the reformist
press, had been jailed a few days earlier on the familiar charge of insulting
The morning the presses stopped, pro-reform editors huddled inside their
empty offices, trying to plot their comeback. Ataollah Mohajerani, the
minister in charge of press matters, spoke words of defiance: "If
my ministry is going to be used as a tool for closing newspapers, I will
But, despite rebellious appearances, the reformers have lost this important
round in the struggle for change. Making matters worse, they had started,
before the shutdown, to turn on one another. Mr Ganji had been criticised
by his allies for going too far, crossing what Iranians call the "red
lines", the limits to free expression that both sides understand but
While this drama was being played out, President Muhammad Khatami, still
the presumed leader of the reform movement, remained hidden behind the
scenes. He delivered one tough speech in which he vowed the reforms would
continue. But, in effect, he disappeared from public view. Informed sources
say that the elite Revolutionary Guards recently held a meeting to map
out a strategy for pushing him out of office.
The crackdown on the press may, indeed, have punctured the president
and his supporters. Long before he was elected three years ago, he used
the nascent reformist press to propagate his ideas. In the early 1980s,
he was appointed minister of Islamic guidance and culture, holding the
job for 11 years until he was forced out by conservatives who thought he
had given too much freedom to the press and the arts. His allies then started
Salam, a newspaper that, for a time, was Iran's symbol of free expression.
When Salam was closed last July, it led to six days of unrest, with students
calling bravely for more freedom and more democracy.
Peaceful protests were held at mid-week in several big cities, after
people learnt of the closures. But the outcry was unlike the rage of last
July. Everyone from students to editors wanted to keep the volume low.
They knew from experience that a noisy demonstration would provoke the
Islamic militia to take the law into its own hands, a move certain to lead
to the reformers' downfall. Even so, the eerie silence may have signalled
that the reformers were sliding backwards, perhaps even into oblivion.