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Better times
The Tehran media fair

July 8, 1999
The Iranian

The following report describes the media atmosphere in Iran just a couple of months ago. Several moderate publications attracted big crowds, a sign of a more open society. But the roller coaster seems to be heading down again. Parliament is considering a new bill that would put new limits on freedom of the press. Also the moderate daily Salam has been shut down by the revolutionary court. -- Editor (Related story)

Iran is a country of nuances.Untrained senses miss a lot of the finer rapport among people. But at this year's media fair in Tehran, particularly dull senses would have been required to not notice what was being said. Some 400 publications had set up booths at the International Trade Center. This while most rightist papers, such as Jomhuriy-e Eslami, Resalat, Kayhan, etc., boycotted the event that coincided with the impeachment hearings of Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani. Entekhab, which represents the voice of the new conservatives, did take part, however.

All you had to do was enter the place and see the people's reactions to various booths to get a picture of what is going on in this society. The reformist daily Neshat was packed with spectators, as editor Shamsolvaezin sat and talked directly to the people. Across the hallway, Faezeh Hashemi's paper, Zan, -- the issue that covered in brief ex-empress Farah's Noruz message -- was selling like hot cakes. More interesting was their display of a big chain and lock in protest against a ban on the paper. A tag hanging from the lock read: "This lock is rightist too" though the term "mostaqeem" was used instead of "raast."

A teenage woman smiled cunningly upon seeing the sign and asked the woman behind the booth what the display meant. "I think the message is pretty direct," came the reply. The crowd was even happier when they saw Shamsolvaezin cross over to visit Zan's booth in a show of support.

Other popular booths included Sobh-e Emrooz. Again, a crowd had gathered to watch a fairly civil debate between folks from that paper and a conservative visitor. It was a heated but respectful crossfire, a true pleasure to watch. I was told, however, that this was nothing compared to the previous year, when rightist papers had participated. Apparently the organizers of the event were a bit naughty and deliberately set the booths of rightist papers next to those of the reformists, which allegedly resulted in interesting debates.

If you wanted a serious chat, without the big lines to get to Shamsolvaezin, the likes of Gofto-gu editor, Morad Saghafi, made for great conversation. Like-minded Adineh magazine saw quite a bit of traffic as well. But if you wanted to just hang out with the youth and perhaps chat up someone, the exhibition hall where the popular film and art magazines were displayed, was your best bet.

Also present were religious publications, though they generally found themselves a bit lonely. The publication Beshaarat, which aims to teach the youth about the Quran, even promised a raffle of sorts worth 80 quarter-gold coins, though as far as could be seen this marketing tactic did not bring in the lines they may have hoped for. I should add that not all the godly publications lacked visitors. Meanwhile the conservative students were represented by Basij.

The booth of the Zoroastrian magazine Vahoman drew in a good crowd. But in all honesty, they did not play fair: They proudly displayed multiple copies of an issue that boasted Mossadeq's portrait, not to mention a most interesting postcard with a graphic image of the lion, sword and the sun (sheer-o khorsheed). There was even a bolder version of that card with the famous display that has been taboo for years, but only to be displayed for sale to select people. On the same nationalist track, Hammeehan promised to hit the newsstand soon.

This year the Iranian Jews joined the event for the first time, as they have finally published their very own magazine, Bina. I engaged in a conversation about the recent Internet debate on the Iran-News listserve regarding the status of the Jews in Iran. "So," I ask the woman behind the booth, "is it really hard to live in Iran as a Jew?" "It is a lot better now," she said with due precautions. "A lot better implies that it was terrible, and it is still pretty bad," I persisted, "Is that what you mean?" She just smiled and told me to figure out the meaning for myself. Goes to show that caution is still the rule in Iran.

I talked to the young man behind the booth of Zaman as well. Zaman is geared towards travel-minded Iranians. This relatively obscure publication came to national limelight during Mohajerani's impeachment hearing after a Majlis deputy accused it of having published contacts to prostitutes in Dubai -- a charge to which Mohajerani replied in a strong and unequivocal voice: "That's a lie!" Well, to set the record straight, it was a lie. I now posses the famous issue. As I bought it I joked with the man that he must have paid the Majlis deputy something, for his sales must have skyrocketed now. He smiled and told me, "They have, but it really is a shame that a member of parliament says things like that, obviously not having read the text properly."

It was also fun to eavesdrop on the replies to various people being interviewed for a survey. Most of them agreed that the press was freer now and as a result more reliable. They also generally agreed that the reformist papers gave a better report and analysis of events. More interesting was that it seemed that not too many of the same folks were as happy regarding progress (or lack there of) in state-controlled radio and television news.

I was taken by Rah-e No's empty booth. What is amusing is that the booth space for this recently-banned publication was actually set up, though there could clearly be no representation for an illegal journal. So, all you saw was an empty space with a lonely white plastic chair inside. Perhaps I read too much into these things, but it is a custom to leave a place for missing guest of particular importance who just could not make it to the gathering (much like leaving the porch light on for a son at the front).

If that was the case, Mohajerani's defeat of the impeachment drive was great news. That is, those who are happy to see the burgeoning of a press with more freedom and diversity, may be smiling more frequently, and the likes of Rah-e No need not have an empty booth next year. Hopefully the rightist papers will also be present to enhance this attractive landscape.

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