Iran reformers see threat to 'Khatami thaw'
By Jonathan Lyons
TEHRAN, June 10 (Reuters) - Iran's powerful conservative establishment
has prepared new measures that would gut nascent press freedoms and reverse
the ``Khatami thaw'' settling over the Islamic republic.
Draft revisions to the current press laws, now circulating among hardline
members of parliament, would tighten significantly already tough limits
on freedom of expression, choking off President Mohammad Khatami's attempts
to introduce a civic society within Iran's existing Islamic system.
Approval of the measures, which is far from certain, would be a major
blow to Khatami, who drafted the current law 14 years ago as Minister of
Culture and Islamic Guidance and has gently nurtured cultural liberalisation
It would also strip the reformers of their most powerful weapon as
they prepare for parliamentary elections next March that could break the
hold of hardliners.
``The survival of democracy and the (Khatami) movement depends on strengthening
civic institutions,'' said influential writer Abbas Abdi. ``One of the
most important institutions is the press, and it should not be a victim
of these factional battles.''
Conservatives say the measures are necessary to protect the system
from Western-style abuses.
``By amending the press laws, parliament will cut off the hands of
the deviants in their cultural banditry,'' Hamid Reza Taraqi, hardline
deputy from Mashhad, said. ``Our people understand that on the table of
cultural and political tolerance there is (also) freedom of conspiracy.''
Isfahan deputy Hasan Kamran, a sponsor of the bill, said pro-reform
newspapers ``aimed to overthrow the whole system.''
The draft amendments, obtained by Reuters, appear aimed at returning
Iran's lively domestic press to bureaucratic and legal controls more reminsicent
of the Soviet bloc than of the emerging ``Islamic democracy'' sought by
Key proposals include:
- Requiring all journalists to seek state permission to pratice their
- Empowering an existing oversight body to close a publication indefinitely,
pending investigation of alleged violations of law.
- Strengthening conservative control of press monitoring boards.
- Making individual journalists, not their publishers as is now the
case, legally responsible for all writing and barring the use of pseudonyms.
- Developing ``new guidelines'' for the distribution of foreign newspapers
and magazines within Iran.
- Barring publication of any item that violates ill-defined ``Islamic
values'' or national security or tarnishes the reputation of senior Shi'ite
Iran's reformers, including senior aides to Khatami, are outraged by
the proposals, and even many conservative publications, hoping to carve
a place in the new Iran, are having second thoughts. No date has been set
for debate of the measures in parliament, a conservative stronghold.
Shaban Shahidi, the liberal deputy culture minister for press affairs,
predicted that attempts to muzzle the press, which has largely rallied
behind the reforms, would backfire.
``We believe that those MPs who, during the (failed) impeachment of
the Guidance minister supported the cultural policies of the Khatami administration,
have understood the message of May 23, 1997. They intend to grant more
legal freedoms to the press,'' he said.
Conservatives hold the press largely responsible for what they see
as a weakening of Islamic and revolutionary values and the erosion of their
grip on power under Khatami's reforms, particularly expanded political
Pressure from the press recently forced the resignation of the head
of the security services over a string of mystery murders of dissident
politicians and intellectuals. In February, pro-reform candidates used
the press effectively to capture an overwhelming majority of seats in Iran's
first local elections.
The press has also fanned popular demands for greater social and political
freedom and publicised once taboo subjects, including challenges from within
the ranks of Islamic scholars to Iran's system of supreme clerical rule.
Many conservative clerics, who dominate the mosques and control the
pulpit for the public Friday prayers sermons, have sought to stem the tide
with arguments that freedom under Islam cannot be absolute. The prayer
leader in Kerman recently said journalists who violate ``islamic principles''
deserve to die.
Others have withdrawn to their seminaries and libraries, returning
to the time-honoured Shi'ite tradition of leaving politics to laymen, a
trend that analysts say looks likely to accelerate in the face of growing
demands by the public at large for more say over their own destinies.