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The Smell of Ideology
Time talks to Mohammed Qouchani, the 23-year-old star of Iran's reformist press

By Azadeh Moaveni

Before hard-liners shut down Iran's pro-reform press in mid-April, 23-year-old journalist Mohammed Qouchani was the talk of Tehran thanks to his irreverent articles. Fans praised Qouchani for his creative style, critics questioned his scoops, but no one doubted that his popularity had people lining up at kiosks to buy "Asr-e Azadegan" (Age of Liberty), the paper for which he wrote a fortnightly column. Whether analyzing news or exploring the quirks of the Iranian political scene, Qouchani personified the mixture of wit and boldness that kept even Iran's television generation turned on to the print media.

The reformist press in Iran has revived the fortunes of the daily papers: neighborhood shops take turns buying the morning papers for the block; tired secretaries avidly turn pages on the bus trip home; taxi drivers spend their lunch money on afternoon editions. Why such avid interest? In addition to making Iran's dreary political culture a topic for frank discussion, the press is entertaining. In a country where foreign films are often banned, and where even a trip to the coffeehouse can be fraught with complications, writers like Qouchani keep the public amused and alert. Just as censorship inspired rather than repressed Iranian film-makers, the current crackdown has impelled the reformist press to create a new avant-garde style of Iranian journalism that is engaging, organized and morally purposeful.

In an interview with TIME Tehran correspondent Azadeh Moaveni just days after judicial hard-liners closed Asr-e Azadegan, Qouchani discussed politics, Iranian justice and the role of the press in the reform movement. Excerpts:

TIME: Can you describe your own recent tussle with the law?

Qouchani: Judge Mortezavi [who recently summoned Qouchani to the press court for his article on judicial impartiality] and I go back a long way. During the trial of Mashallah Shamsolvaezi [editor of "Asr-e Azadegan"; the trial took place earlier this year] which he was presiding over, we asked him why he was not being impartial. He responded that there is no such thing as judicial impartiality in Islam, and that a judge should play an active role in directing the suspect to confess his crime. I wrote this up in an article that was published the next day. When I showed up again for the trial of Immadden Baghi [an editor at the pro-reform daily "Fath"; the trial took place in May] and was ordered to leave, on my way out I told him, "After the press shut-down you haven't left any newspapers to even be afraid of." The judge told me I had a big mouth, and I said, "Yes, a journalist's mouth is always big." He announced that I had insulted the court, though he was the one being insulting, and I was remarking on reality. Before I left the courthouse, I was interrogated in relation to the article I wrote five months previously criticizing the role of the judge in the Islamic Republic. Back in the courtroom, the judge asked his assistant to look up the case against me, and it was clear that they were playacting. I realized then that it was a judicial bluff.

TIME: What was your article about?

Qouchani: Law should be interpreted in the interest of the accused, so a citizen's minimum rights are observed. But in the Islamic Republic the law is interpreted such that the government's rights are observed, not people's rights ... Reform doesn't mean that great changes will occur overnight, or that we'll even reach democracy in one generation. It might take several, but I think our people understand this.

TIME: Will it be difficult to maintain public support if the reformist press remains closed?

Qouchani: People's support was made more fresh and lively through the press, but it won't disappear in its absence. True, we had a shared loyalty through the newspapers. We checked in with each other each day, as we printed our news and people bought papers and established relationships with that news. Now our daily relationship with people has been closed, but we still have our seminars and speeches. It might even have a beneficial effect on the Dovom of Khordad front [the pro-Khatami political coalition named after the day of his presidential victory]. In the last two years the front has restricted all its effort s to the press, and journalists were the most important publicists of the movement. This may not be so productive for the continuation of the movement, because we need to move on to firmer ground ... This may change the climate for parties to play a greater role, so people can do more with their opinions than just vote.

Qouchani: We have a history with the U.S. and the U.K. that is stuck in our consciousness. What the Islamic Republic's officials are not aware of is that the understanding of what constitutes direct interference has changed, and that we cannot continue to regard American interference in the same mechanical fashion that we did in the past. Political trends have become more complex, and this requires us to deal with them in a more complex way. We need to use more complex legal and international means to think about interference.

TIME: What are the effects of this kind of cliché political rhetoric?

Qouchani: Whatever understanding a government, particularly an ideological one, espouses inevitably turns people off. Now if four independent analysts, for example, criticized the U.S., people would react much more positively to that criticism. People move in social waves, and when they feel the government is forcing something on them, they react to that. Today, people are critical of the government and have complaints against it, and they look at the U.S. issue from this same perspective. They see this as being forced on them, though perhaps if they looked at the issue independently they might come to the same conclusion.

TIME: Why do you think people follow the reformist press?

Qouchani: Because it's the rhetorical equivalent of the new liberal thinking. It's a new way of analysis, language and writing. People have turned away from a press that only curses and calls the U.S. an imperialist. Literature must be respectful of new ways of looking at things. [We must] write in ways that both a religious and secular reader can relate to. Our writing cannot smell of ideology.


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