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Press Rights vs. State Rights

Members of the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, will soon be discussing a bill covering the entire print industry, including the press. The bill's wide-ranging limitations have been the impetus for a number of critical articles. The following is an excerpt from an opinion piece written by M. Qaed, a well-known columnist for one of Iran's most successful independent magazines, Sana't Hamlo Naql (Transportation Industry). The article appeared in the Tir (July/Aug. 1995) issue.

A new law to bring more discipline to the press is about to dawn on us. Or is it a ghost about to haunt us?

One of the changes being proposed by this legislation is the right given to the Press Supervisory Committee to shut down publications. This proposal is of critical importance and it has faced intense opposition from critics.

Article 11 of the proposed bill lists nine "exclusive" reasons that could result in a closure. Personal taste could be the determining factor in interpreting some of these offenses, such as insults against religion and "holy matters and necessities," which go far beyond the pillars and principles of religion.

Based on this bill, any past or future expression of thought could be considered an insult to unspecified religious "necessities." The current law considers "insults leading to apostasy" as a punishable offense, which is less likely to occur and more difficult to prove.

At the very least, in countries that are not governed by commandments and dictates and where there is something which could be called an elective or even consultative parliament, the spirit of the laws concerning the print and press industry are always inclined toward creating a balance between innovative, alternative and reformist thinking on the one hand, and reckless, adventurist and selfish behavior on the other.

Throughout time, legislators, deep in their hearts, have always felt if print and press freedoms were effectively curtailed, their legislative bodies [as forums where the free exchange of views is necessary] would never have taken shape and there would have been no newspapers to regulate. One of the requirements of change in any society is the defeat of laws that limit print and press freedoms.

Article 33 of the proposed legislation requires a stamp of approval from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture before anything leaves the printing house. In simple words, each issue of every publication must be looked over and receive a distribution permit before it gets to readers.

This dictate brings up an enormous technical problem: How could you deliver a newspaper to the ministry at five o'clock in the morning, wait for it to be checked and approved and then have enough time to distribute the paper by the time people go to work? This would be impossible to implement unless overseeing officials are constantly present at editorial rooms and printing shops.

Based on what has appeared in the newspapers, most of the legislators who have sponsored the bill do not have a clear idea about what it contains. ("I didn't have time to study [the bill] because I'm very busy," one of them was quoted as saying.)

In fact, one could conclude that what has been introduced as a bill from a group of legislators is actually an effort on behalf of the government; an effort to lay another crooked brick on an already crooked foundation.

The government has the right to introduce bills to the Majlis any time it feels necessary and receive reactions from opponents who may be right or wrong. But by tightening the noose around the press with the hands of a group of legislators, the government has resorted to the worst kind of parliamentary trickery.

One thing that is again being denied and rejected is the old belief that the press should be independent from the branches of the state. The objective of this bill is not just punishing offenders, but a gradual domination and microscopic oversight of the press.

A government's right to govern is just as natural, obvious and indisputable as the right of a writer to write and publish. In the real world and under the uncertain times we live in today, envisaging a 50-50 division of rights for the government and writers is something close to impossible. The government will undoubtedly take a bigger share and attach priority to it.

And whenever necessary, the government certainly has the means to [limit press freedoms] with such wise declarations as, "Now isn't the time for this kind of talk" or "There are [treacherous] hands at work [to weaken the state]" or "The country is under threat."

Government officials are angered by the press because deep down, they believe journalists are a useless nuisance. Government officials think they are not only blessed by divine fate -- or if they are materialistic, they think they are a historical necessity -- but they also think they have the support of the voters and international recognition.

On the other hand, members of the press feel, and sometimes claim, that whenever readers pick up a publication, they are in fact giving a vote of confidence similar to the vote cast for parliamentary candidates.

And what an interesting image it is when, in some societies, governments disappear in strange ways while the press, which they had fought, stay on. Although, in our country, such durability has never been possible for the press.

In recent decades, this view has spread among reformist writers in Europe that in nascent democratic societies, elected governments should be criticized with restraint. The reason, they say, is that these governments cannot withstand crises or the intense pressures of public opinion. Such societies are too fragile to resist political ups and downs, they add.

In more stable societies meanwhile, the press has gradually instilled the view that the right of a government to govern is not the same as the right to remain in power.

The government must not claim that any word said or written against members of the cabinet is necessarily bad for the country or the people.

We have a long way to go before the rights of the state and those of the press are clarified. Among us, there are those defenders of freedom of the press and expression who say they will not settle for any freedoms that are less than 100 percent because experience has shown that retreating a step will push one back all the way to the wall.

And there are those who ask: "How is it possible to compromise with that faction of the government which politicizes everything and is fundamentally opposed to co-existence with people holding different points of view?" As scholars say, that's a good question, but we don't have the answer for it.

There may be 1 percent press freedom or 100 percent, but in any case, defending it will not be possible unless a strong, fearless judicial system comes into existence; a judicial system with independent judges and prosecutors who are not slaves to the executive branch. We cannot rely only on open letters and petitions every time a publication is forced to close down.

Those who have taken this bill to the Majlis are almost certain to succeed. One of these days it is going to pass with minor changes and the government will get what it was seeking: near total control of the press.

Opponents of this bill may be able to achieve relative success in moderating this bill. But it is less than heart-warming to see such severe legislation being cooked up for our narrow and frail press in order to put a lid on nearly all free and fair expressions.

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