Following the election of reformist President Mohamed Khatami, in 1997, many expected an increase in the freedom of the press in Iran . Indeed, President Khatami had been forced to resign, in 1992, after ten years as Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance after accusations of being too lenient with the media. Moreover, in his election campaign, he had promised more freedom for the media and civil society.
In the first year of Khatami’s presidency, independent media outlets, many affiliated with the reformist camp, flourished across the Islamic Republic. Yet censorship remained a problem. For example, when the pro-reform journal ”Jameah” published the statements of the leader of Padrasan (the intelligence services) made during a closed meeting, in which he threatened to “cut the throats and tongues of political opponents”, its license was revoked in June 1998. The following month, Jameah resumed publication with the same staff, under a new name, Tous, which also closed down, following a court decision in the month of August, after “it published lies and disturbed public order”, according to the sentence. No longer licensed, Tous reappeared under the new name of Nehsat and, in turn, stopped. The publication then took over the unused license of Akhbar and issued Akhbar Eghtesad, with many original staff remaining in their positions, and others joining Asy-i-Azedegan.
A similar fate awaited Salam, Neshat, Khordad, all excellent reformist newspapers. On July 7th , 1999 , Salam was closed down when the Intelligence and Security services filed a complaint against it. Although the criticism was later withdrawn, student demonstrations broke out in the capital, Tehran , the next day, in protest against suspending publication. The scenes were the most violent since the 1979 Revolution. The Chairman of Salam appeared in front of a special committee of clergymen to answer the accusations of publishing lies and classified documents, and stirring public opinion against the regime. The publication was banned for five years and the Chairman forbidden from publishing for three years.
For its part, Neshat was forcibly shut, in September 1999, with political motives behind the move, decreed by Tehran prosecutor Said Mortazavi. He was acting on a complaint by the Attorney General, after the newspaper published a speech calling on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to distance himself from extremists. Editors later apologized for any offence the article might have caused, to no avail.
As for Kordad, its Editor-in-Chief had to defend his publication, in front of a special committee of religious leaders, in October 1999, from the accusation that is repeated propaganda against the regime and major figures in Iran, amongst them Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and published articles offensive to religion.
The Editor-in-Chief was sentenced to five years in prison and barred from practicing his trade for five years following his imprisonment. He had been a Minister in the Khatami government until being questioned in court, in June 1998, and losing his seat. He was elected the following year, in the municipal elections, in Tehran . His self-declared readiness to run for Parliament probably motivated the Conservatives to attack him.
Closure of pro-reform publications wasn’t exclusively limited to political newspaper. Instead, it also involved journals on women’s issues which enthusiastically defended reform and criticized the policies of the conservative regime. Zan, the most popular women’s priodical was shut down in April 1999, after publishing a message by Farah Diba Pahlavi, the last Emperess of Iran, on the occasion of Norouz, the Persian New Year.
What the press in Iran suffered in the first two years of Khatami’s rule were a sign of things to come. In a period of fifteen months, between 2000 and 2001, a total of fifty newspapers and magazines were shut down.
The situation got worse in March and April 2000, when Supreme Leader Khamenei gave a number of speeches and sermons attacking those who defended reform, particularly the reformist press. During one of his sermons, he criticized those who promoted “US- style reforms”, without naming them. In another speech, he remembered how the “first Western attacks on Iran came via radio stations”, adding that the media “spreads anxiety, disagreement, and pessimism. It seems as if ten or fifteen follow the same line, from the same source, and publish the same articles.” In Khamenei’s opinion, these publications “create problems, kill hope amongst the young, and unsettle public confidence, throw insults, and humiliate.”
With these statements, Khamenei gave the green light for the judiciary to begin harassing the reformist press. The courts later declined a draft presented by a Parliament with a reformist majority to increase the freedom of the press, with the Supreme Leader putting a final nail in the coffin of any negotiations on the subject. He warned that if the enemies of Islam and the Revolution seize control of the media, “national security, unity of the country, and the faith of the public would be in great danger. This is why I can’t allow myself and other officials to stand still on this serious matter.” He added that the “current press law is somehow enough to prevent such a calamity occurring. This is why adjustment or any other interference by Parliament would not be in the Islamic Republic’s interest.”
In these fifteen months, the following daily pro-reform newspapers were banned by the Iranian authorities: Aftab-e-Emrooz, Ahrar, Asre-Azadegan, Bahar, Bamdad-e-No, Doran-e-Emrooz, Fath, Gozaresh-e-Ruz, Manatiq-i-Azad, Mellat, Mosharekat, Payan-e-Azadi, Sobhe-Emrooz, and Talsh. Journalists recount how, in one day, twelve pro-Khatami newspapers were shut down, at once.
One of the officials from the judiciary explains, on condition of anonymity, how a committee was formed to investigate the media, in the months following this wave of suspensions. It concluded that “despite the repeated warnings given, the media had resumed anti-Islamic and anti-revolutionary activities”, and discovered “foreign connections to some of the media.”
Despite this crackdown on independent and privately-owned newspapers, the Presidency of Khatami pushed the Iranian press into unfamiliar territory. It did so by:
1-Increasing the numbers of independent and privately- owned newspapers:
Available statistics confirm that 85% of the publications appearing after 1997 were private, indicating an enhanced role for civil society and accompanying privatization policies. The result was that even the Ministry of Culture and Guidance preferred privately owned publications. Another aspect of the increased independence of the media was the founding of a non-governmental Association of Iranian Journalists in 1998. Of course, the independent press was more likely to suffer from attacks by Conservatives, with around 90% of the newspapers and journals banned in the last few years, thought to be around 160, being privately owned.
In any case, despite the state oppression, the independent press played an important role in promoting freedom of opinion and expression in Iran . It continues to provide the public with criticism and analysis, previously taboo, of nearly all political matters that affect them, from the Iran-Iraq to the expenses incurred in privatizing the economy. In fact all political figures, except the Supreme Leader, were put under the spotlight.
2-Developing a new direction in journalism:
After the 1997 elections, a new style of writing appeared in Iranian publications, represented by the Jameah (Society) newspaper, which described itself as the first newspaper for civil society in Iran. Some observers divide the history of the Iranian press into two: a pre-Jameah era and another after its publication.
In the days after the revolution, three daily newspapers each specialized in a different field; Slam pioneered a unique style of political analysis, Hamshari displayed a professional journalistic style, and Jameah stood out with a unique and independent style, later imitated by others when the newspaper was later banned by the Press Court .
There are more ways than one in which Jameah outshone other newspapers. First of all, the newspaper published the names of all its writers, editors and staff. The move aimed at transparency, lacking in other publications, where secret and borrowed identities dominated. It also announced its circulation figures, unlike other government funded newspapers which kept their distribution secret, for fear of losing out on funding.
Another indication of the independent course that Jameah followed was its tolerance to all political parties and groups. Articles published in the newspaper were written by authors from all backgrounds and political persuasions. Moreover, Jameah adopted ten principles to guarantee its independent practices. The first stated that the newspaper respects all political parties and affiliations, whether traditional, modern right wing or leftist. It invited all groups to send their contributions for publications in specific columns in the paper. Jameah also conducted interviews with political figures with different loyalties.
A particularly courageous sign of the paper’s independence was Jameah’s publication of the names of celebrities, political figures, and religious leaders without the preceding long title, for example the term “Grand Ayatollah” was omitted. The ancient practice can be traced back to the early years of Islam in Iran and the time of Kings and Emperors. According to its tenth principle, Jameah worked to defend human rights by critically observing the performances of different government authorities.
3-Forming an independent union:
In addition to the Press Association, a new union was formed, entitled “Association for Defending Press Freedom”, to guard the interests of private newspapers, with ten distinguished Iranian editors and a number of prominent journalists present at its opening ceremony, on 17 August 1999. As opposed to the Press Association which concerned itself with economic issues relating to the press and journalists, the new Association was established sought to “work on a larger scale and monitor human rights” for journalists. In the same period, a third union was formed, the Association of Iranian Woman (ROZA). This was seen as a step forward for Iranian women who lack institutions to represent them. The monthly magazine Zan, later closed down by a Press Court decision, contributed greatly to this women’s Association.
The press as a front for the conflict between the forces of reform and tradition
The emerging independent press in Iran has to face a number of enemies from inside the political system. Amongst them are: the judiciary and its affiliate, the Press Court, particularly hated by imprisoned journalists, the Supreme Leader’s office, the Guardian Council of the Constitution, right wing fundamentalist pressure groups, and Parliament, after the Conservatives became the majority.
In the case of the judiciary authorities, its president, appointed by Khamenei, has attacked the press in a variety of violent and cruel ways, accusing journalists of being stooges in the hands of enemies of the Islamic Republic, especially the United States . The Press Court has followed the same attitude and banned the above mentioned publications, charging them with damaging the minds of the public and taking part in anti-revolutionary activities. In the six years following the election of Khatami, around 100 daily, weekly, and monthly publications were suspended.
The old Parliament, elected towards the end of the Presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani, and serving two years during Khatami’s reign) was dominated by Conservatives. They tried to hinder the new President’s reform plan with all sorts of methods. In 1999, they draft an amendment to the 1985 law governing the press. The new draft placed more limits on independent newspapers, with the main proposals as follow:
1-All electronic journals and individuals launching internet websites will fall under the new law.
2-The office of press censorship will consult the judiciary authorities, the Ministry of Information and the police before licensing new daily newspapers.
3-Contrary to the old law, Editors in Chiefs are no longer the only representatives from a publication who can face questioning and punishment. Writers, columnist, and caricaturists will share responsibility and the penalty caused by their writings and drawings.
4-One a newspaper is suspended, it will no longer be allowed to transfer its staff, property, name, and licence to another paper. As mentioned previously, this was a popular occurrence with banned periodicals and the only solution to continue to publish.
5-According to article 43 of the new amendments, the jury in trials of the press will be confined to providing consultation to the judge who has the final say in the outcome of the case and is able to issue a verdict opposed to the jury’s opinion.
6-The following figures will be added to the office responsible for jury selection: a member of the Council for Cultural Revolution a pious lawmaker, in addition to a graduate from a religious institute in the city of Qom . This ensures that juries come under the control of the government and religious authorities.
After the new Parliamentary elections, where reformists won the majority of seats, attempts were made to adjust these amendments, hastily approved by a Conservative Parliament at the end of its term. The new pro-reform MPs proposed a new a law that created conflict between the legislative, on the one hand and conservative and liberal minded newspapers, on the other. The argument ended with the interference of Khamenei who ruled that the old laws were sufficient and didn’t require any updating.
When he leaves the Presidential Palace, Khatami will leave behind 160 banned publications and thousands of unemployed journalists. Despite this heavy burden, the President has paved the way for an independent press in Iran , a path that no one will be able to easily block.