London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Recently reformist Iranian journalist, Elias Hadrati, 44 was indicted for encouraging individuals both inside and outside of Iran to work against the security of the Islamic Republic. He has been accused of promoting the distortion of “public opinion” and has been sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. Etemad, the newspaper for which he writes has stated that he has been charged with “inciting against the regime”. The indictment was based on articles published in 2005, two of which criticized the vetting of candidates and one condemned the death sentence given to Hashem Aghajari. Since 2000, the Iranian judiciary has been responsible for closing down tens of reformist newspapers.
In order to understand the relationship between the Iranian press and the authorities, one must go back to the 1970s. A few days after Imam al Khomeini arrived in Paris during late 1978, he met with several Iranian journalists who were on strike. They were protesting against the military cabinet, led by General Gholam Reza, following the arrest of some of their colleagues in Tehran. The Ayatollah was accompanied by Ibrahim Yazdi(who was to become foreign minister and is currently the leader of the opposition Freedom Movement), Sadeq Qutb Zadeh (the foreign minister and the director of television and radio after the revolution, but was later executed by order of Khomeini for his alleged involvement in a plot to overthrow the regime) and Abul Hassan Bani Sadr (the first President of the Islamic Republic who was impeached by parliament and currently lives in exile in Paris) at this meeting.
The first question directed at Khomeini at this meeting was about his government’s intentions towards maintaining a commitment to the freedom of the press and expression. The Ayatollah responded in the same vain with which he had previously addressed his advisors, “Censorship will not be take place, everyone will be able to write whatever they wish. But I call on [journalists] to be free and observe the moral, religious and social sensitivities.” A young journalist replied, “Is this not a form of self-censorship, which may be more harmful to freedom of expression and the press than direct censorship?” Before Khomeini had the opportunity to answer, Qutb Zadeh jumped off his seat and replied, “You are now in France, the land of freedom and the land of the great revolution. If you were to write an article on the virtues of fascism and denied the massacre of the Jews in World War 2, the general prosecutor will not only prevent your newspaper from publishing the article, he will also arrest you and order you be tried.” Khomeini was satisfied with his advisors response and added that the law under his rule would be derived from Shariaa law. No partisan or factional loyalties would be considered when dealing with the press.
The Ayatollah returned victorious to Tehran and prominent newspapers welcomed him with headlines that read, “The King is back and the Devil has left”. At the time, newspapers were not directly censored but each newspaper was committed to respect a set of strict guidelines that were defined by the political leanings of the publisher. The left-leaning paper, Keihan, whose editor in chief, Rahman Hatifi, was a senior official in the Iranian Communist party (later executed after communist cells were discovered in the army), would not publish any criticism of the Soviet Union or the communist Todah party. Meanwhile, the nationalist-liberal nationalist paper Ettelaat gave more coverage to the activities of nationalist and liberal parties. The morning Ayandegan paper was more courageous in its criticism of religious figures and the notion of a theocracy in Iran. Amongst the weekly magazines, the widely popular Omid Iran became a platform for figures and organizations, which called for a secular state while Tehran Mussawar was closer to the national leftist current.
The press’s honeymoon period after Ayatollah Khomeini seized power was short lived. Less than six months after the revolution, Khomeini announced, “I do not read Ayandegan”. The following day, a huge demonstration led by clergymen in the capital marched to the publications offices and set it ablaze. Omid Iran was also targeted after it dared to publish the picture of Shahpour Bakhtiar, the last Iranian prime minister to rule under the Shah. The paper also featured an article praising him as a symbol of nationalism and secularism and criticized the Iranian people for not protecting the former official from the storm of the revolution. It was that day in Tehran than it remembered as the blackest ever witnessed. A bloody battle erupted with Hezbollah militiamen and the revolutionary guards on the one side and students, women and intellectuals on the other, defending the independence of the press. The following day the Ministry of Guidance (the equivalent to the ministry of culture) ordered the closure of four daily newspapers and fifty weekly magazines and newspapers.
Between August 1979 and the election of Mohammed Khatami in May 1997, the few papers that continued to be published were Keihan, Ettelaat, and Jomhuri Islami. They resembled government bulletins and were difficult to differentiate from one another. The appearance of Salam, a leftist religious newspaper towards the end of President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s rule raised some interest, however its circulation did not exceed 30 thousand copies a day. This was a very poor number in comparison to the million copies of Ettelaat that were sold daily during the Bakhtiar premiership. On the eve of Khatami’s election, the total number of newspapers sold in Tehran did not exceed 200 thousand.
The election of Khatami brought seismic political changes and, because of his openness and belief in the freedom of expression, improvements occurred in the freedom of the press. Until September 1997, Mashallah Shams al Waezin was not known, despite being a brilliant journalist. He was appointed to a senior post in Keihan and towards the end of Rafsanjani’s rule; he formed an intellectual and cultural circle, with the help of the prominent intellectual Abdul Karim Soroush. Khatami’s victory in the presidential elections prompted Shams al Waezin to establish a new paper entitled Jameh, (Society in Persian).
Jameh marked a turning point in the history of the modern-day Iranian press. It proved very popular and attracted several well-known journalists and writers. However, the conservative establishment, which regarded Khatami’s victory as a nightmare, soon expressed its opposition towards the new daily. The Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered it to cease publication sixth months after it was launched, despite selling more than half a million copies and enjoying Khatami’s support.
Immediately after the closure of Jameh by State Prosecutor, Judge Said Mortazavi, Shams al Waezin and his colleagues used a newspaper published in Khurasan entitled Tus to publish the articles they used to write in Jameh. In effect, Jameh was back in circulation, albeit disguised as a regional paper. When Tus was closed down, Shams al Waezin published Neshat and then Sobh-e Azadegan. He was subsequently arrested and sentenced to three years in jail. There were also other reformist newspapers that ceased publishing as a result of the conservative crackdown. They included, Sobh-e Emrooz, headed by Khatami’s advisor Said Hajarian; Mosharekat, whose editor in chief, Mohamemd Reza is the president’s youngest brother and the former deputy speaker of the Majlis (Iranian parliament); Khordad, published by Abdullah Nouri, the reformist Interior Minister at the time, who was consequently convicted and sentenced to five years in jail.
The reformist newspapers and magazines that emerged during Khatami’s first term transformed the Islamic Republic into one of the most active and free countries in the region, with regards to the media. However, this freedom did not last as the conservative-dominated judiciary and the Supreme Guide, Khamanei, accused reformist publications of serving as a cover for the enemy (America). Judge Mortazavi ordered the closure of 18 dailies and 90 weekly and monthly publications, causing 20 thousand journalists to become unemployed. Prominent journalist,s such as Shams al Waezin, Emadeddin Baqi and Akbar Ganji, were all jailed. Gangi still remains in Tehran ’s Evin prison, whereas Said Hajarian was left in a wheelchair after surviving an assassination attempt.
As a result of the campaign against reformist publications, a number of journalists and writers turned to the internet to communicate with the public. However, the public prosecutor continued his crackdown and ordered the arrest of many “bloggers”. The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology imposed a strict control over opposition websites and radio and TV programs that were broadcast online or via satellite.
The Supreme Council for National Security also issued a law to form a special committee to forbid internet users in Iran from accessing banned websites, using the latest internet filtering technology. More than 4000 Iranian website owners have faced steep financial penalties or jail. However, more than 790 thousand sites continue to publish articles written by reformist writers, intellectuals, political activists and students on the situation inside Iran. They can only rely upon anti-filtering technology to counteract the restrictions imposed upon them by the regime.