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Who's really in charge
Fundamental weakness of the Iranian press

March 13, 2003
The Iranian

From Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in 20th Century Iran by Geneive Abdo and Jonathan Lyons (John Macrae Book/An imprint of Henry Holt and Company, 2003).

In what soon emerged as a coordinated campaign, Ayatollah Khamenei sounded the bell on April 20, 2000, for the end of the independent press.

"Unfortunately, today the enemy is taking root inside Iran. Some newspapers have become bases for our enemies," Khamenei said in a blistering condemnation of what he called "domestic hypocrites" doing America's bidding in the cause of globalization. "I am not against press freedom, but some newspapers have been created with the aim of inciting public opinion and creating differences and mistrust between the people and the system. It seems that there are ten or fifteen that are controlled from a single center." His audience, swelled by members of the basij militia, responded with lusty chants of "Death to the mercenary pen pushers" and "Shame on the hypocrites -- leave our newspapers alone."

On April 23 and 24, the judiciary answered the leader's call, suspending without trial fourteen reformist publications, including Asr-e Azadegan, the newest offering from the phoenixlike team of Shams and Jalaiepour. Many more closures followed, as did the prosecution on a variety of charges of leading commentators, editors, and publishers.

The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters without Borders blasted Khamenei for the crackdown, charging he had turned Iran into "the world's largest prison for journalists." The Committee to Protect Journalists, another media watchdog, labeled the supreme leader one of the world's "ten worst enemies of the press." Khatami's rule of law, it turned out, was a double-edged sword. But the main reformist movement took a surprisingly sanguine view of the entire affair -- at least in public.

"Those who want to act in today's world without respecting the people and the popular will are mistaken," President Khatami told his allies on the Tehran city council, in a clear reference to the unpopular press crackdown. Jalaiepour denied the closures were a setback for the reform movement, saying its true strength lay in its strong social base of five million educated, middle-class Iranians.

Isa Saharkhiz, the former deputy for press affairs and now editor of the newly banned Akhbar-e Eqtesad, told us the consensus within the reformist camp was to remain calm and await the convening of the new Parliament on May 27, when the pro-Khatami bloc would revise the Press Law and restore the independent newspapers. And Khatami's brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, said his Participation Front felt the election had given it a mandate for press liberalization and would make it the first major piece of legislation in the Sixth Majles.

The new Parliament, however, would never get that chance. In a remarkable public intervention, undreamed of at the height of Khomeini's influence, the supreme leader stepped in to block consideration by Parliament of a more liberal press code. On August 6, 2000, the legislature gathered to debate and vote on amendments to the harsh Press Law, passed just a few months before by the lame-duck conservative Parliament. Approval was assured. Only no one had counted on a directive from the leader, delivered by letter the night before to the Speaker of parliament.

"Should the enemies of Islam, the revolution, and the Islamic system take over or infiltrate the press, a great danger would threaten the security, unity, and faith of the people. Therefore, I cannot allow myself and other officials to keep quiet in respect of this crucial issue," Khamenei wrote. "The current Press Law, to a degree, has been able to prevent the manifestation of this great calamity, and thus its amendment and similar actions... are not [religiously] legitimate and not in the interest of the country or the system."

Reformist deputies used their numerical strength to force a reluctant Speaker to read the letter into the public record, setting off howls of protests and even scuffles in the chamber. But in the end, all recognized they had to submit. "Our constitution has the elements of the absolute rule of the supreme clerical leader, and you all know this and approve of this," Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, the veteran leftist cleric, told the deputies, before turning off the microphones to close the debate. "We are all duty bound to abide by it."

Reformist leaders, including Mohammad Reza Khatami, had told us privately ahead of the vote that they fully expected the Guardian Council to veto any attempt to ease press restrictions. But they never imagined the leader would lay his own prestige on the line to block the popular new law when he could easily have left the dirty work to his clerical allies.

That Khamenei did so reveals much about the importance all sides placed on the issue of free expression under the Islamic political system. Like his clerical forefathers at the time of the Constitutional Revolution, Khamenei had served a powerful reminder that it was, after all, the senior clerics who reserved the right to determine the red lines and to protect the faith as they saw fit.

The leader's intervention also revealed the fundamental weakness of the Iranian press and its inability to serve as the keystone of a new, civil society within the Islamic political system. The pro-reform theorists -- from the Kian circle, the Center for Strategic Research, the Khatami Ping-Pong league, and the newspaper veterans -- had grossly misjudged the balance of power within postrevolutionary Iran.

In the spring of 2000, as their legal worries mounted and the hard-liners moved in, Shams and Jalaiepour addressed a plaintive letter to President Khatami, appealing for his protection. "Either tell us that our press activities are illegal... or tell us clearly from which government body we are to get the minimum of political and professional security to continue our work," the pair wrote to the symbolic head of the reform movement. They had, the letter went on to say, taken Khatami at his word and pursued his promise of reform to its logical conclusions. With the police virtually knocking on their door, they asked, where was the president now? Khatami never responded.

A few weeks later, as the authorities took Shams to jail to begin his thirty-month sentence for insulting Islam in his latest newspaper, Khatami's minister of culture expressed concern but said there was nothing the government could do. In remarks that could easily serve as the epitaph of the "press revolution," Ataollah Mohajerani said: "I am saddened by the fact that a prominent journalist is being sent to prison... [but] I cannot do anything for him. The realization and institutionalization of freedom is a lengthy process."

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