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    Iran leader bars a bill restoring freedom of press

By Nazila Fathi
The New York Times
August 7, 2000

Quashing a cherished goal of President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist allies, Iran's supreme religious leader today sided conclusively with the country's conservatives and ordered Parliament to scrap a bill aimed at restoring a free press.

The surprise intervention by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's top Muslim cleric, stunned reformers who had hoped to use their newly won strength in Parliament to revive the once vigorous liberal press.

When Mr. Khamenei's decision was announced, the chamber erupted in loud arguments and scuffles. Sixty reformist members of the 290-seat Parliament walked out in protest.

The proposed law to deregulate the press was the centerpiece of Mr. Khatami's package for the new Parliament, which opened in May. It was meant to counter the conservative crackdown of the last six months, when courts closed nearly every reformist newspaper and jailed editors and intellectuals. The 22nd newspaper was shut down today.

The parliamentary showdown was a decisive moment in the ongoing struggle between reformist and conservative forces. The battle has simmered, with occasional eruptions, over the three years since the reform-minded president was swept to power on the votes of a youthful electorate that has come of age since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Friction between the two camps increased with the victory of reform politicians in parliamentary elections six months ago. In response to the recent crackdown, reform leaders had urged their supporters to be patient, promising that the new Parliament would overturn the press and social restrictions enacted by its predecessor.

They said their chief aim was to pass a new press law that would permit a resumption of the lively public debate and investigative journalism that had flowered under Mr. Khatami.

In refusing to permit the bill to be debated or voted on, Ayatollah Khamenei took the exceptional action of circumventing the normal institutional checks on legislative power.

The Iranian Parliament, while directly elected, is relatively weak. Any law it passes must be approved by the Council of Guardians, a conservative clerical body. A law rejected by the council can then be appealed by Parliament to another group, the Expediency Council, which is also dominated by hard-liners. Only then -- at least until today -- did the supreme leader intervene to make a final decision about the constitutionality of a measure.

Until now, Ayatollah Khamenei, who owes his position to the powerful religious hierarchy, had succeeded in appearing to give a little support to each side of the political divide.

He has praised the president as a good Muslim who is a true heir to the values of the Islamic revolution. In late May, just days before the new Parliament was to open, he pressed the Council of Guardians to end its long delay in certifying the reformists' election victory in Tehran.

But Ayatollah Khamenei has also provided ammunition to hard-liners, endorsing their judicial crackdown on the pro-Khatami press and describing reformers as hirelings of foreign powers.

In a letter sent to Parliament and read out there today, Ayatollah Khamenei said he considered the proposed new press law a threat to the fundamental pillars of the clergy-run system in Iran.

"It will be great danger to the national security and people's faith if the enemies of the Islamic revolution control or infiltrate the press," he wrote. "The present press law has prevented such disaster so far. The proposed bill is not legitimate, and amending it is not in the interests of the country."

The press law now in effect gives the courts, which are dominated by conservatives, the power to close newspapers summarily and to control who owns or works for them. It was passed in the waning days of the previous Parliament, which was controlled by religious hard-liners opposed to Mr. Khatami's program of social reforms.

The proposed press law, which was drafted by one of Mr. Khatami's government ministries, would have restored some independence for media and required jury trials before the closing of any publication.

Mehdi Karrubi, the speaker of Parliament, said Ayatollah Khamenei, who has held his post since 1988, had the constitutional power to order the lawmakers to stop consideration of a bill. The system, he said, is based on submission to the "absolute rule of the supreme leader."

That view, however, was disputed by reformist members of Parliament.

"The decision should have been put to a vote," said Ali Tajernia, a reformist legislator.

Once the letter was read, the room erupted in shouts, and some members began shoving each other. In the heat of the moment, one reformer, Mohammad Rashidian, ignored religious and political protocol by referring to the supreme leader simply as "Khamenei," without an honorific. He was immediately condemned by conservative members.

It was not clear what effect today's move by the ayatollah might have. Since the closure of most reformist newspapers, most supporters of Mr. Khatami have heeded pleas from leaders of his camp to keep calm. Last month, however, angry students demonstrated in front of Parliament, calling for change.

Hamidreza Jalaipour, who helped found and run five now-banned daily newspapers, said journalists still had no choice other than caution. But he said new publications would continue to appear in an effort to test the boundaries of political freedom.

"The result will be that newspapers and journals will continue to publish under new licenses and different names every time they are shut down," he said.

Some reform members said they held out hope that Ayatollah Khamenei could be persuaded to change his mind. Fathimeh Haghighatjoo, a representative from Tehran, said reformers were planning to write to him to explain why a more unfettered press would be beneficial.

"We believe we can solve obstacles such as what happened today if we have closer ties with the leader," she said. "The problem is that the Constitution is vague when it explains the duties of Parliament and the supreme leader."

Under the system put in place after the Iranian monarchy was uprooted by the Islamic revolution, the supreme leader controls the military, security, courts and all broadcast media in Iran. Only the president, Parliament and some municipal councils are elected.


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