Supreme leader lashes out at reformist media; parliament stiffens press law

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New York, April 21, 2000—On April 19, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched a biting verbal attack against Iran’s reformist press, which continues to face fierce pressure from hard-line political forces. (Click here for CPJ’s latest protest letter.)

“There are 10 to 15 papers writing as if they are directed from one center, undermining Islamic and revolutionary principles, insulting constitutional bodies and creating tension and discord in society,” Khamenei told a gathering of some 100,000 Iranians at Tehran’s Grand Mosque, the Associated Press reported.

Although Khamenei qualified his verbal assault by urging restraint against “any illegal action by any person due to emotion,” his words seemed likely to fuel existing political tensions in Iran.

Just four days earlier, the Revolutionary Guards—an elite military unit that reports to Khamenei—issued a widely-reported statement warning pro-reform politicians and journalists that “when the time comes, small and big enemies will feel the revolutionary hammer on their skulls.” Meanwhile, the reformist paper Sobh-e-Emrooz reported yesterday that a hard-line cleric, Ayatollah Abolqasem Khazali, had publicly urged his followers to kill reformist figures because they allegedly insulted “Islamic sanctities.”

This heightened anti-reformist rhetoric has been accompanied by the passage of restrictive new laws aimed at muzzling pro-reform journalists. On April 17 and 18, the outgoing, conservative-dominated Majles (Parliament) approved a series of new amendments to the press law that give authorities more power to muzzle the press. The legislative action is widely viewed as a last-ditch effort by the outgoing conservative majority, which was decimated in February’s parliamentary election, to create even more effective legislative weapons for use against the reformist press.

The Majles’ issuance of a draft version of this law, along with the judicial closure of the pro-reform daily Salam, helped trigger massive student demonstrations last July.

The amended law, which still awaits final approval from Iran’s Council of Guardians, includes a ban on any criticism of the constitution and a provision that makes writers, in addition to publishers, liable for prosecution under the press law and other statutes used to criminalize journalistic expression.

The law would also bar individuals who belong to illegal groups or who are deemed to have undermined Iran’s Islamic system of government from practicing journalismÑa provision that could give the courts considerable latitude to ban outspoken journalists from practicing their profession.

One of the most potentially debilitating amendments makes it more difficult for the publishers of banned newspapers to re-launch the publication under a new name–a tactic that a number of outlawed pro-reform papers have used to circumvent judicial closure orders in the past two years.

The recent press-law amendments also include provisions that:

* Grant Revolutionary Courts jurisdiction to try journalists for alleged publications offenses (since the Revolutionary Courts have already tried several journalists, in apparent contravention of current law stipulating that press offences are to be tried in press courts, this merely legalizes an existing practice);

* Compel journalists to reveal their sources;

* Give conservatives more representation on the influential Press Supervisory Board, which has the power to close newspapers and send journalists to court.