Protest is a little safer when silent
June 24, 2000
FOR the past half-century, Iranian students have been in the forefront
of radical movements. In the past, they ranged themselves against western
imperialism and its local allies. Now, once again, they are pushing for
change, and being punished for it. But this time their enemy lies within.
Without much publicity, but across the country, students are being arrested
for demonstrating publicly for more freedom. The latest crackdown began
late last month after students held rallies to commemorate President Muhammad
Khatami's electoral victory three years ago. Their crime was slogan-shouting,
a harmless kind of protest but one that risks immediate retribution in
Scores of people were arrested on June 6th and 7th in the north-eastern
city of Mashhad for taking part in a pro-democracy rally after Mr Khatami
had given a speech there. Their shouted slogans were aimed at the conservative
clerical establishment: "Freedom of thought cannot be realised by
the people who grow long beards," they boldly cried. Among the arrested
were two members of an Islamic student association.
The United Students' Front, an umbrella group of reformist student groups,
said that one of their members had been questioned by a revolutionary court
in a way that amounted to "an inquisition into the faith and beliefs"
of the students. Many members of Iran's largest student group, the Office
to Foster Unity, have also been summoned to revolutionary courts. Ali Afshari,
one of the group's leaders, was arrested in April after attending a conference
in Germany. He was charged with endangering national security and prevented
from seeing his lawyer during the first 40 days of his interrogation.
Next month will be the anniversary of last summer's pro-democracy student
protests which led to days of street violence in Tehran, and the imprisonment
of student ringleaders. Although student leaders seem to be heeding the
advice of their pro-reform elders to try to avoid provocation, they say
that they are planning to organise campus rallies to mark the anniversary.
Students are also searching for other outlets. Among the more sophisticated
are online news-sheets from the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA). In
a building near Tehran University, young men and women huddle over a handful
of computers, pumping out breaking news from campuses across Iran for the
ISNA website. The agency has some 30 offices dotted about Iran, from which
stringers call the Tehran headquarters. "News about universities is
often biased and distorted, so we decided we must create our own agency,"
says the 24-year-old political editor, Amir Muhammad Eslami.
Their mission may be freedom of expression, but it has its limits. ISNA
is financed by a state body called the Supreme Council for the Cultural
Revolution. Although council members include reformists -Mr Khatami sits
on the board- is still subject to the whims of state censorship. Mr Eslami
says that they are taking great precautions in order to avoid being shut
down, as the reformist newspapers all were this spring. "We try not
to offend anyone," he says. "Reforms should happen at a gradual