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Scrappy Iran Paper a Barometer of Change

Media: Tehran daily adds irreverent voice to a growing industry. Openness is not embraced by all.

May 28, 1998|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEHRAN — It broke the story of the Revolutionary Guard commander's behind-closed-doors speech calling for the beheading of Iran's new reformers. It interviewed a former Iranian official freed after 15 years in prison as a U.S. spy. It dares to cover the misadventures of a secretive group of religious radicals known as Ansar-e Hezbollah, or Helpers of the Party of God.

And now Tehran's latest newspaper, Jameh, may get the scoop of its short life: The White House has confirmed that it has approved in principle Jameh's request for an interview with U.S. National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger--in what would be the first contact between a White House official and the Iranian press in the generation since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Jameh, however, has already made history. Launched in February, the gutsy little paper--16 pages of unconventional news, commentary, acerbic satire, political cartoons and culture--has become a barometer of the sweeping changes in Iran since reformist President Mohammad Khatami took office in August.

"Jameh has two functions: We are trying to build up the level of democratic discourse, and we are a good test case to see how much freedom the government can tolerate," said Jameh's editor, Mashallah Shamsole Waizin.

The appetite for both is high: Kiosk owners say they can barely keep Jameh on the stands, even though it publishes twice a day--and three times on a good news day.

But so are the dangers: Angered by the newspaper's openness, a mob stormed Jameh's provincial office in the northern city of Rasht twice earlier this month, breaking windows and equipment, beating up staff and seizing copies of the paper.

It is also facing growing challenges from political conservatives and even other papers. Recently, the conservative Islamic Republic newspaper charged Jameh with "deviating remarks violating Iran's ideals," "abusing the open climate of dialogue" and "opportunism."

Jameh's coverage of the Revolutionary Guard chief's pledge to "root out antirevolutionaries wherever they are" ignited a firestorm of criticism.

Kayhan, one of Tehran's oldest papers, reported that the Jameh story was "forged with no regard to moral, legal and security consideration."

Jameh boldly shot back that Cmdr. Rahim Safavi's "revolutionary tone and martyrdom-seeking" belonged to a bygone period. And it advised him to "speak with a civil and lawful tone," as the constitution stipulates.

Jameh is not the only new voice in Iran. More than a quarter of the country's 991 licensed newspapers, magazines and periodicals have been authorized to operate over the past nine months, although not all of those have begun publishing. Tehran alone has 21 newspapers. Many older publications are also covering once-untouched topics and offering outlets for diverse opinions.

In a weekend speech marking the one-year anniversary of his election, Khatami observed: "The most stable and lasting system is the one which creates the least limitations to freedom of expression. In my view, freedom means freedom of thought and the security to express those thoughts without fear of prosecution."

But more than any other paper, Jameh is a microcosm of the change in Iran's political climate--and in many of Tehran's revolutionaries a generation after they toppled the monarchy.

"I as a revolutionary man do not believe today in revolution, but in evolution," said Hamid Jalaii, Jameh's ever-cheerful publisher, who is already talking of London and New York bureaus while admitting that resources are slim. "After struggling for five years, I've grown from having an ideological viewpoint to believing in pluralism."

Jameh, which is Persian for "society," pledges to offer a forum for all society's sectors.

Editor Waizin comes from a long line of Shiite clergymen and was so active against Iran's last shah that he spent a year in prison. Today, he advocates a meritocracy rather than a theocracy.

"I don't believe the clergy alone should run Iran. The clergy can be part of political activity, but participation should be based on merit," he said.

The paper's approach to news is also original. A recent issue led with a story that police would no longer stop young unmarried males and females caught together unless a complaint was filed. The cover photo was an arty shot of Iranian men doing a traditional exercise-dance outdoors.

Not a single Iranian politician, still staple fare in most papers, made the front page. Even letters to the editor contained news that wasn't reported in other papers, including a student demonstration against bad water and the detention of a controversial cleric's supporters.

"We're not cliched," Jalaii said in the modest Tehran home that has been converted into editorial offices for Jameh's staff of 45 young male and female reporters.

Although they are Khatami backers, Jameh's editors have also criticized the new leadership.

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