Thursday, June 09, 2005

The reformist press is here to stay in Iran

Despite arrests and closures, Iran's new press says it's here to stay

Whoever wins Iran's presidential elections next week, they will be facing a determined press that has survived a string of closures and arrests and which continues to push against the Islamic republic's "red lines" that confine freedom of expression.

"There will be no going back," Mashallah Shamsolvazin, the president of Iran's Association for a Free Press, told AFP.

"Going back" means a return to the situation eight years ago, just before the first election victory of incumbent President Mohammad Khatami. There were a mere five national newspapers of which one, Salam, was pro-reformist. The clerical regime also closely guarded the issuing of newspaper licenses.

Today the news kiosks are piled high with some 60 daily papers, including 14 dedicated to economic issues, around a dozen to sports and one to cinema. Of the regular papers, around half are centrist or reformist.

But the situation for the press is far from ideal, with human rights groups constantly pointing the finger at the regime as it struggles to keep journalists in line.

For Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press rights watchdog, Iran remains the region's "biggest prison for journalists". And in every paper, self-censorship is ever present.

Shamsolvazin himself spent time in jail three years ago, but prefers to look at the achievements rather than the setbacks. "For the development of the press," he said, "Khatami deserves a good mark."

But it is a measured observation. In 2000 the judiciary, a bastion of Iran's religious right-wing, shut down some 100 titles that backed the president. Journalists were also hauled before Revolutionary Courts on charges ranging from "disturbing the public mind" to "propagating against the regime" or "insulting religious values".

And the crackdown continues, with the judiciary surfing the Internet to seek out writers who head online to call for a change in how the 26-year-old Islamic republic is run.

Twenty online journalists and Internet technicians operating pro-reform websites were arrested last November. After their release, several complained of having been forced to make elaborate confessions.

As recently as last week, weblogger Mojtaba Saminejad was jailed for two years after being convicted of "insulting the supreme leader", Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The subject of Khamenei's position as supreme leader is one of Iran's many "red lines" -- in other words issues that cannot even be touched.

Dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, who has served five years behind bars for alleging top regime figures were behind a string of gruesome murders of dissidents was allowed out of jail on sick leave last week -- only to be arrested again.

In 2003, the case of Canadian-Iranian photographer Zahra Kazemi also threw the spotlight on what the regime is capable of: she was detained for taking pictures outside Tehran's Evin prison, and died several days later as a result of a blow to the head.

But according to Issa Saharkiz, a former culture ministry official in charge of the press, entrenched hardliners are fighting a losing battle.
"Every political viewpoint has its own newspaper, even if print-runs have dropped since 2000," said Saharkiz, who has also headed several papers that drew the wrath of the censors.

Before Khatami, 1.2 million issues of various papers were printed. Today that figure stands at 3.5 million.

"Progressively, new papers are replacing the ones that were closed down. The tone of articles is more prudent, but the depth is still there," Shamsolvazin explained.
Another emerging force is the student press, which over the past eight years has expanded from 200 to 2,200 titles. With a circulation of two million, Shamsolvazin noted they also carry a "far more radical line" than the mainstream papers.

Added to that are 42,000 webloggers -- meaning Iran ranks third behind the United States and China in terms of numbers of online diarists.

"The weblogs have developed since the press closed. The pressure is so intense that young people jump onto anything in order to express themselves," said one weblogger, who asked that she not be named.

"Most of the blogs are not political, but having said that, politics does have an influence on what we write."



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