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Vetoing Press Freedom in Iran

The New York Times
August 8, 2000

In every recent election, Iranians have overwhelmingly voted for politicians who promise to loosen theocratic controls and establish the rule of law. But hopes for seeing that reform agenda enacted into law diminished on Sunday when Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, forbade Parliament to revise a restrictive press law. By thwarting the elected Parliament, Mr. Khamenei mocks democratic principles and invites more radical challenges to clerical rule in the future.

Three years ago, younger voters, women, urban dwellers and other Iranians fed up with clerical repression helped elect Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric, to the presidency. But a conservative majority in Parliament blocked many of the changes he advocated.

After a coalition of pro-Khatami parties won a decisive parliamentary majority in elections this February, it seemed possible that the reformers would be able to pass legislation delivering on their promises of increased personal and political freedoms. But the conservatives have now shown that they are prepared to use the veto power of the unelected clerical leader, Mr. Khamenei, to resist changes they do not want.

The reformers deliberately chose press freedom as an issue to test their strength within Iran's divided political system. The religious establishment, under Mr. Khamenei, holds ultimate authority and directly controls the army, the courts, the security services and broadcast outlets. But in other areas, the elected president and the legislature have carved out some influence. The current press law was enacted by the outgoing conservative legislature in March. Reformers wanted to amend that law to restrict the power of judges to close newspapers and to make it easier for journalists from those publications that have been shut to move on to new newspapers.

Newspapers have been an important element of the reform movement in Iran. Their exposures of official links to violence and corruption have embarrassed prominent conservatives. One particularly bold investigative journalist, Akbar Ganji, exposed the role of the intelligence ministry in a string of murders of dissenting intellectuals two years ago. A conservative crackdown earlier this year sent Mr. Ganji and other crusading journalists to jail and has so far shut down more than 20 reform newspapers. The latest was closed just yesterday.

For now, the clerics have again prevailed. But the large majority of Iranians who have consistently voted for change have every reason to be angry and frustrated. With less than a year remaining in President Khatami's four-year term, his efforts to change the system appear to be dangerously stalled by a clerical leadership that refuses to respect the will of the Iranian people.


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