Assault on Independent Press in Iran Intensifies
New York, July 28, 1999 (Human Rights Watch -- The assault by Iranian
authorities against publishers and editors associated with the country's
independent press has become wider and more intense in recent days. On
July 25, the Special Court for the Clergy convicted Hojatoleslam Seyyid
Mohamed Musavi-Khoeiniha, publisher of the daily newspaper Salam, on charges
of misinforming the public.
Kazem Shukri, an editor of Sobh-e Emrouz, remains in incommunicado detention
since July 20 without a hearing or an opportunity to post bail. Journalists
and editors in Iran have told Human Rights Watch that legal proceedings
are being prepared against two other reformist newspapers, Khordad and
Neshat, apparently in an effort to silence them.
"Kazem Shukri should be released immediately. No one should be
imprisoned solely for exercising their right to free expression,"
said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa
division of Human Rights Watch. Megally also called on Iran's leaders
to end the ban of Salam, and described the effort as "a blatant attempt
to gag Iran's vibrant independent press."
The conviction of Hojatoleslam Musavi-Koeiniha, a member of the clergy
and a proponent of political reform and freedom of the press, follows the
July 7 order by the Special Court for the Clergy shutting down the Salam
following the daily's publication of a government memorandum dealing with
plans to suppress those publications favoring political reform. The memorandum
named several members of the parliament as linked with the planned campaign
against the press. Hojatoleslam Musavi-Koeiniha was convicted on July
25 by the same Special Court on charges of defaming a government official,
publishing insulting language, and misinforming the public. The ban against
Salam is indefinite and remains in force.
The Special Court's banning of Salam on July 7 helped to set in motion
several days of large-scale student protests in Tehran and other major
cities. The other contributing factor, also on July 7, was the first passage
in the parliament, known as the Majlis, of draft legislation to increase
the powers of the government-controlled Press Supervisory Board. This
would change its composition to make it more conservative, authorize the
prosecution of writers and journalists as well as publishers and editors,
and authorize prosecutions in Revolutionary Courts for alleged offenses
in print. Pending final passage of this legislation, government opponents
of political reform have been using the Special Court for the Clergy to
attack independent journalists and suppress reformist publications, many
of which are run by reform-minded clergy.
The Special Court for the Clergy reports directly to the Supreme Leader,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Although much of the proceedings of the one-day
trial before the normally secretive court were broadcast on national television,
and Hojatoleslam Musavi-Koeiniha spoke in his own defense, the procedures
of the court fell far short of international standards, in particular the
right to be tried before an independent and impartial judicial body. In
this case, among the jury of eight appointed by the judge were several
prominent anti-reform officials, including Hojatoleslam Hoseinian, director-general
of the Islamic Propagation Society.
Hoseinian is known to be a close associate of Saeed Emami, the former
Information Ministry official who authored the memorandum published by
Salam and whom the government has identified as responsible for the assassinations
of at least five independent writers and political personalities in late
1998. Kazem Shukri, editor of the center feature pages of Sobh-e Emrouz,
another reformist daily, has been detained since July 20 following publication
of an article which, according to the Tehran public prosecutor, distorted
and insulted Islam. He has not been granted a hearing before a judge or
permitted the opportunity to post bail.
The paper's managing editor, Saeed Hajjarian, was also summoned and
questioned but released on bail. The Press Affairs department of the Ministry
of Culture and Islamic Guidance issued a statement on July 21 declaring
that Shukri's detention and interrogation were "unprecedented"
and in violation of the country's press law. Independent Iranian journalists
have told Human Rights Watch that Shukri is being pressured to implicate
others in the publication of an article which the Tehran Public Prosecutor
contends was offensive to Islam. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA),
citing the legal office of the judiciary, reported on July 21 that writers
as well as editors "can also be prosecuted for the criminal content
of their articles."
The independent print media have become increasingly central in Iranian
political life, and are an important forum for debate about the future
direction of the Islamic Republic. In the absence of legally recognized
opposition political parties, independent newspapers play a vital role
in presenting alternative viewpoints and promoting greater respect for
basic human rights in the country. Iranian journalists have told Human
Rights Watch that two other reformist dailies, Khordad and Neshat, will
also face legal proceedings designed to silence them. The apparent aim
of those behind the crackdown is to suppress the independent press as much
as possible in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for next February.