Iran's press regroups amid crackdown
Asia Times - By Ramin Mostaghim
Aug 26, 2003
TEHRAN - Dissident bookseller Ardeshir Masali explained his point of view with candor. "The Iranian Islamic system is run by a regime suffering from a deep-rooted paranoia, one which loses its temper easily."
The police, continued the 39-year-old, who owns a modest little book stall in a shopping arcade in Enqelab Square in the Iranian capital, does not just "slap the faces of detainees, but breaks their skulls, as they did with Zahra Kazemi".
This is the case that turned world attention, and that of much of its media, toward Iran. Kazemi, a photojournalist holding both Iranian and Canadian citizenship, died in custody on July 11 in Tehran as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a cranium fracture. She was reportedly severely beaten following her arrest on June 23 while taking photographs of Evin prison, north of Tehran. Her death led to a diplomatic row between Iran and Canada. But greater still were the reverberations within Iran's media community.
"Murdering Kazemi while she was in jail was so shocking that it spurred Iranian journalists into staging a sit-in protest on August 8," Mashallah Shamsulvaezeen, board member of Iran's Journalist Association, told Inter Press Service. The day is now observed as Journalists' Day in the country.
Fifty years ago Karimpour Shirazi, a journalist famous for his criticism of the royal family, was burned alive in the military camp in which he was jailed. Kazemi, said Shamsulvaezeen, is the second journalist to have been killed in custody in Iran.
Recent weeks have seen harassment of the media by the state intensify. A wave of arrests has swept through the reformist press - the target of the conservative clerical establishment in its tussles with more reform-minded groups led by President Mohammad Khatami - since an outburst of anti-regime protests in mid-June and July.
A daily published by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), typifies the situation. The Iran newspaper's managing director was charged, after a complaint was filed about an article, with spreading propaganda against the establishment and publishing false news, and then released on bail.
Other publications have also run into trouble. The weekly Nameh-yi Qazvin was shut down on charges of "promoting depravity and publishing lies" after it was accused of discrediting clerics. The managing directors of Iranian dailies Kayhan, Siyasat-i Ruz and Etemad appeared in court on August 13 to face complaints against their publications, according to IRNA reports.
Journalists who tend to support the official line, however, see the events and their significance differently. Ahmad Khorramian, 29, a journalist with a conservative newspaper, said that the Zahra Kazemi case "became controversial thanks to her Canadian passport". Khorramian argued, "European and Canadian diplomats did not move a finger when, five years ago, Mahmoud Saremi, who was the IRNA correspondent in Mazar-e-Sharif [in northeast Afghanistan] was killed by Taliban forces."
The reality on the ground, however, belies the apparent logic of such explanations, critics say. In the past four years, more than 90 newspapers and magazines have been banned, throwing over 2,000 journalists out of work, says Mohammad Hydari, manager of the website Parspejvak.com.
Even so, there are those who soldier on, undaunted by the all-too-regular commute between home and jail or revolutionary courts. "As a journalist I write to defend the basic rights of my fellow citizens to know and participate in the shaping of their country's destiny, and I'm ready to pay the price," said Nader Karimi, 33, editor of the magazine Gozaresh.
Karimi has indeed had to pay a staggering price. Released from jail this month, Karimi has lodged with the authorities a security deposit of a crippling 500 million rials (around US$60,000) to ensure that he appears in court when summoned. Shamsulvaezeen said he "feels very concerned for my fellow journalists in Iran because there is no professional safety for them".
The Kazemi case, he explained, proves how vulnerable Iranian journalists are during political turmoil. "The Islamic regime is suffering from a chronic legitimacy crisis," he said. "That is the main reason for its paranoia and why it reacts impulsively and in panic."
The pattern, said dissident journalist Amir Kavian, is depressingly familiar. Every year, several journalists write or speak about an issue that the regime finds "subversive" or "against Islamic values and national interests". Then, said Kavian, they are jailed until some members of parliament or more sensitive authorities appeal for clemency on their behalf. "Then the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pardons them or commutes their sentences," observed Kavian.
There are signs that dissidence is growing stronger. On August 16, the Journalist Association called for the resignation of the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ahmad Masjedjamei and the public prosecutor of Tehran, Judge Mortazavi, who are seen as responsible for the crackdown on journalists, intellectuals and students.
Among those at the August 8 protest sitin was Arash Pahlavan, a student leader who was representing the support of reformist students. With the start of campaigning for parliamentary seats just seven months away, Pahlavan indicated that the movement was reconsidering its tactics.
"Unless reformist parliamentarians and politicians are ready to pay the price of fighting for freedom of speech and the rights of the people, we will not repeat the blunder we committed six years ago of taking to the streets," Pahlavan said, referring to criticism that pro-Khatami forces were far too timid to push for real change.
The dilemma facing the dissidents and reform-minded among the press is that in the absence of independent parties and political institutions, newspapers and magazines have become political instruments, often representing politicians' interests.
Rival associations of journalists are allied with the reformist group of Khatami and others with his rival, Khamanei. "In this tug of war, nothing changes basically ... there is no room for independent journalism to emerge," said Kavian.
"There are two options open to journalists and writers in Iran - massage the word and doublespeak and lead a low-profile profession, or write unscrupulously and be a martyr for the pen," remarked Mohammad Hydari.
Yet the pressures can be unbearable for those who decide to uphold the principle of freedom of speech and expression. As Dr Mohsen Kadivar, a 46-year-old electronics engineer and theologian who recently led a communal prayer at a jailed journalist's home, said, "The price one pays for engaging in political activities has increased so much that no one dares become involved." http://www.daneshjoo.org/generalnews/article/publish/article_1932.shtml