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Reformists Fear for Press in Iran

The recent victory of conservatives in elections may bring harsher restrictions on publications and the people behind them.

March 09, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — Her smile may have been pure and sweet, but the cover girl on Message of Happiness magazine was showing too much hair. At Tehran Criminal Court No. 76, the prosecutor, Ahmad Beygi, waved the magazine cover indignantly and called for tough action.

Next up was a political case. Isa Saharkhiz, editor of an intellectual magazine called Aftab, or The Sun, was charged with defaming the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini by publishing an article -- by an American -- that said the supreme leader had made false statements about the last shah. This, according to the prosecutor, amounted to calling Khomeini a liar -- a serious crime.

"The press must build up people's revolutionary knowledge, but he has insulted Ayatollah Khomeini, our great leader," said the prosecutor, calling for Saharkhiz to be jailed for up to two years and his magazine closed.

Then the prosecutor brandished another cover girl with a hijab, or head scarf, that revealed too much. Another political case followed: Mohammed-Hassan Alipour, the editor of Aban, another magazine, was charged with threatening Iran's security by calling for changes to the constitution. Another of his alleged crimes: publishing a cartoon of a tall blank wall with crowds of people walking around it, a message about people ignoring the regime.

Every week in Iran's media court, newspaper and magazine managers and editors are in the trenches battling for the survival of their titles, for press freedom, and sometimes for their own liberty.

After the recent victory of conservatives in parliamentary elections, many editors fear that the political rein on Iran's press will tighten sharply -- even if there's a slackening of attention on a couple of inches of hair peeking cheekily from beneath a scarf. Many predict that the conservatives will pursue a "China model" for Iran, allowing more social freedoms but restricting political freedom and information.

In Iran, dozens of papers were closed in the last four years. Alipour said restrictions on press freedom had sharpened.

"I think it has gotten worse and in future it will get even worse still," he said.

Saharkhiz edited a paper that the court closed four years ago. So he opened a magazine and last month was summoned to court again. He says that Iran's authorities make sure they have a case outstanding against most of the reformist publications, so they can call them to court any time they step out of line.

"From the first issue of a [reformist] paper they file a lot of complaints. It's a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads," he said in English.

"I think they will ban me from press activities and even from social activities," he added, referring to the lectures he often gives.

In the atmosphere of discord before February's elections, two reformist papers, Shargh and Yas-e No, were closed for publishing excerpts of a letter from pro-reform members of parliament critical of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Shargh reopened recently after publishing a groveling apology. Several senior journalists from the paper declined to be interviewed in the days before it hit the streets. But Shargh will be watched closely by reformers to see if it has moderated its line after closure.

Conservatives such as Hussein Shariatmadari, editor of the hard-line paper Kayhan, and Gholamali Haddadadel, leader of the conservative coalition that took most the seats in the recent elections, said papers that broke the law should be punished.

Nasim-e Saba, one of the few reformist papers left in Tehran, published a photograph the day after the election of a woman outside a polling booth, holding up a small placard showing the faces of conservative candidates. It appeared to show an election breach; the headline went further and suggested the conservatives had broken the law.

But hours before publication, about 9 p.m., after authorities saw the photograph on the Internet, a secretary from the prosecutor's office called the paper.

The tone was friendly and sincere, said Hamid Faizabadi, the paper's deputy manager. But the message was chilling -- either get rid of the picture or the paper would face closure. Hours of exhausting negotiations followed, and finally the paper capitulated, blurring the front-page picture and eliminating the text and headline.

"They said it's better if you smudge this photo and eliminate the information because later on you might find difficulties and your manager could go to jail," Faizabadi said.

He said that just before the election, authorities had also warned the paper to play down the closure of the two reformist papers.

Faizabadi said editors in Iran often had to censor their own products. Creating pressure for self-censorship, he said, was the authorities' most important tool of control over the press.

Saharkhiz argued that editors should stand on principle and reject any compromise and apologies, even if they face closure or jail.

But he predicted that reformist editors would censor themselves for the sake of keeping even a watered-down reformist viewpoint on the streets.

"They [the authorities] will try to use indirect ways to restrict information. They closed these two famous papers, and they will push and pressure other papers. In the future, maybe we won't have reformist papers," he said.

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Dixon was recently on assignment in Tehran.

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