Deaf & blind
Muzzling the press -- the eyes and ears of the people
By Hossein Bagher Zadeh
May 5, 2000
A major clampdown has started against the press in Iran. Just over a
week ago, sixteen publications, including twelve national dailies, were
shut down by the authorities. These include almost all the reformist press,
which started publication in the last three years. As a result, the whole
reform movement has been muzzled. More than 1,500 journalists and press
workers have been made jobless and newspaper circulation has been cut by
At the same time, a number of journalists and publishers have been detained
or imprisoned with arrest warrants going out for a number of others. A
few weeks earlier, a leading journalist was shot and critically injured
in a public assassination attempt in broad daylight. In the meantime, a
draconian press law was rushed through the outgoing parliament, sponsored
by deputies who have all but one had been rejected by the electorate in
the February elections. The election itself, while heavily vetted to prevent
any opposition politician from standing, has been dogged by the conservative-run
supervisory council manipulating the results in a bid to alter the constitution
of the new parliament in its own favor.
As with any other act of political oppression, the free press is the
first to fall victim. And in a society like Iran where independent political
parties are virtually non-existent, the press has to take the major brunt
of the attack. Political oppression may only succeed if the society is
kept unaware of the words and deeds of the rulers. A free and independent
press act as the eyes and ears of the people. It keeps a constant watch
on the world outside and would give advance warning of what is coming up.
In order to subjugate a society, it has to be made deaf and blind. It has
to be denied of its free and independent press.
The press in Iran has been tightly controlled since the early years
after the Islamic revolution of 1979. However, over the last 2-3 years
a degree of relaxation has allowed for a more vibrant and diverse press
to emerge. There has been an explosion in terms of both quantity and quality
of new publications hitting the newsstands. Over 35 dailies were being
published until two weeks ago, most of which started life in the past three
years. The range of topics being discussed has been more exciting. Mundane
subjects, hitherto regarded as taboo, were being gradually introduced into
the debate - from human rights and civil society, to questions of separation
of state and religion, to the will of the people being the source of power.
This new press, however, by no means could be classified as "free"
or "independent". First of all, publishing activity in Iran is
regarded not a as a right but as a privilege. The privilege is granted
to people who have proved their loyalty to the religious political establishment.
This is done through a licensing system. A government-appointed supervisory
body vets all applications, and approves only those coming from people
it finds suitable for the job. Applications coming form people associated
with political opposition are rejected outright. Even then, the process
is far from fair and impartial. In practice you may have no chance of being
granted a license if you do not follow the right political or religious
creeds. We just heard in a conference in Berlin last month how some applicants
have been waiting for a license to produce a periodical on social issues
for several months while in the meantime scores of other licenses had been
issued to people favored by the authorities. It is therefore no surprise
that almost all of the 35 or so national dailies have been affiliated to
the warring factions inside the establishment: many are owned and/or edited
by people who have worked or are working in the government, the military
or the intelligence organizations.
Then there is the question of who could or should have access to these
newspapers. While some liberal-minded publishers and editors allow secular
writers and journalists to work for or write in their papers, they do so
at their own peril. They have to be careful not to raise the authorities'
anger by allowing unreconstructed political opponents of the regime to
write in their publications, no matter how mundane or apolitical the topic
may be. There is also the question of 'red lines' borderlines that
nobody is allowed to cross. Some of these red lines are defined by various
laws, but some are undefined and unwritten. And this is where most publishers
fell foul of the authorities.
The judiciary system in Iran is under the control of the conservative
religious authorities and works more according to the whims of the judges
than by laws. Moreover, in Iranian courts, the judge and the prosecutor
are the same person. An offending article, either because of content or
its writer, could result in a court summon being promptly issued for the
publisher, editor and/or the writer, who would appear before a judge with
powers to impose hefty fines, issue long prison sentences and/or suspend
publications. And though by law press offenses have to be tried in the
presence of a jury, this is no guarantee for a fair hearing. The jurors
are appointed either by a government committee or by the judge himself
(judges being always male), and even then their verdict may be disregarded
by the judge altogether. Moreover, in some instances, the judge may decide
not to call a jury at all!
These peculiar practices are best exemplified by the case of daily Neshat
with which I was personally involved. As a dissident writer and journalist,
I have been denied writing in the Iranian papers for many years. However,
and after several attempts, last year I managed to publish a few commentaries
in the daily Neshat all on human rights issues, an area that
I have been involved with since the mid eighties. But when my third
commentary appeared, in which I argued against the death penalty, a
huge outcry started. Some religious leaders interpreted this as taking
a position against Islamic laws regarding vengeance (even though I had
made no reference to these or any other religious laws in the article),
and the hardliners used this as an excuse to put pressure on the paper.
The paper had apparently crossed an invisible 'red line'.
Then they realized that the piece had been written by an exiled journalist
who by definition should have had no access to the Iranian papers. This
was no less of a crime. In the eyes of the Iranian hardliners the society
was divided between the 'insiders' and 'outsiders'. They would tolerate
the reformists as long as they did not mix with the outsiders dissidents,
secular writers and journalists, political opponents, and anyone who had
been at the receiving end of the widespread oppressions in the past two
decades or who had managed to get out of Iran in fear of their lives. Here,
the paper had broken this unwritten second rule: allowing an exiled journalist
to write on a humanitarian issue: the death penalty.
Soon the paper was shut even though it had apologized for both
the content of the article and the fact that the paper had published a
piece by an exiled journalist. A virtual death sentence was issued against
me for the 'crime' of calling for an end to the inhuman practice of capital
punishment, and a bounty declared on my head. In the eyes of the hardliners
running the government in Iran, someone who defends life and opposes the
death penalty deserves to die.
Few weeks later the publisher was on trial. He was charged with various
offenses including offenses against Islam for questioning the death penalty.
He received two-and-a-half-year sentence. But that was not enough. The
courts also summoned the chief editor even though according to the
press law only the publisher is responsible for whatever appears in the
paper. The courts had to invoke pre-revolutionary laws to try and convict
the editor. And in doing so, they decided that they did not need the services
of the official jury either. He too received a two-and-a-half-year sentence.
Both these gentlemen were taken to prison in the last few weeks to serve
And last week came the sweeping suspension of almost all of the reformist
and independent publications some with the highest circulation in
the land. On what legal basis, one might ask? 'Crime prevention'. Yes,
the judiciary has discovered a pre-revolutionary law, which states that
'in order to prevent the repetition of a crime by known dangerous criminals'
a court 'may confiscate their means of crime' a reference to the
confiscation of dangerous weapons carried on by previously convicted criminals.
In other words, though few if any of the newspaper publishers have ever
been convicted of any offense, they are being viewed as dangerous criminals.
Moreover, publishing materials and newspapers are not merely the innocuous
means of communication or tools for cultural discourse, but dangerous weapons
threatening the good of the society. And in order to prevent that from
happening, they should all be shut. It is as if one person uses his tongue
to lie, all tongues have to be cut. And this, more or less, sums up the
attitude of hardliners towards the press in Iran.
The sudden closure of the reformist newspapers has deprived the movement
of its main vehicle of reform. The clampdown on the press has also come
at the time when critical political events are taking shape. Four major
trials are in progress, one of 13 Jews accused of spying, and three others
in which various agents of the regime who have been implicated in killing
of dissidents, attempted assassination and violent attacks on university
students are being tried. All these court proceedings are viewed with suspicion
of either a fix in the case of Jews, or cover-ups in the case of others.
Also, the second round of parliamentary elections is underway. Hardliners
were defeated heavily in the first round. The press had to be muzzled so
that these events could take place away from public scrutiny.
We are living through some of the darkest days in the history of Iranian
journalism. It may also prove to be the defining point for the democratic
movement in Iran. The nation is holding its breath.
Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a member of the steering committee of the
Iranian Human Rights Working Group.
He delivered this speech at the seminar on Worldwide Freedom of Press (3-5
May, 2000) in Barcelona, Spain.