IRAN’S CONSERVATIVE-DOMINATED JUDICIARY WAGED AN EXTENSIVE CAMPAIGN against the local reformist press, closing newspapers and prosecuting outspoken journalists throughout 2000. At year’s end, the most influential reformist newspapers had been silenced, at least six journalists were in prison because of their work, and one publisher had narrowly escaped assassination.
The conservative establishment’s unrelenting assault brought about a nearly complete reversal of the gains in press freedom that followed President Muhammed Khatami’s election in 1997. The liberal press that subsequently emerged provided the backbone of support for Khatami and his agenda of social and political liberalization. During that period, newspapers started covering topics such as official corruption, the undemocratic behavior of the ruling clerical establishment, and an emerging debate about Iran’s theocratic form of government.
The liberal press was instrumental in building support for Khatami’s platform and in helping voters identify pro-reform candidates before parliamentary elections in February 2000. Khatami’s supporters won a strong parliamentary majority in that election, which may have provoked the conservative backlash. Presidential elections are scheduled for June 2001; at press time it seemed likely that Khatami would run again, despite the limited success of his reformist program.
Although newspapers and journalists had often been targets of official harassment in previous years, the scope of last year’s crackdown was unprecedented. The first major blow occurred three weeks after the reformist victory at the polls. On March 12, Saeed Hajjarian, publisher of the newspaper Sobh-e-Emrooz and an important Khatami adviser, was shot twice in the face outside the offices of the Tehran City Council. Hajjarian’s newspaper had published investigative articles linking Intelligence Ministry officials to the murder of several leading intellectuals and dissidents in late 1998. The publisher was critically wounded in the attack, but was recovering by year’s end.
Hajjarian’s assailant fled the shooting on the back of a high-powered motorcycle driven by an accomplice. Because only government security forces are allowed to operate such motorcycles, this detail fueled speculation about official involvement. The attacker was later arrested, along with four others involved in the attack, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attacked the reformist press in an April 20 speech, triggering a sweeping crackdown. “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 fulminated. “Unfortunately, the same enemy who wants to overthrow the [regime] has found a base in the country. Some of the press has become the base of the enemy.”
Two days later, the judiciary launched an open campaign of censorship, banning 16 newspapers and magazines. In the following weeks and months, several more publications were shut down, and by the end of the year some 30 newspapers had been closed.
In the weeks after the April closures, several journalists were summoned to the notorious Tehran Press Court and accused of ill-defined transgressions such as insulting Islamic principles in their writings. Several were arrested and imprisoned. On April 10, prominent reformist editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin lost his appeal and was sentenced to 30 months in prison because of a 1999 article in his newspaper Neshat that argued against capital punishment.
Shamsolvaezin edited a series of successively banned newspapers between 1998 and 2000, all of which were instrumental in pushing critical discourse in the Iranian press to levels that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. In November, CPJ honored the jailed journalist with one of its annual International Press Freedom Awards in recognition of his courageous work.
The conservative crackdown also targeted investigative reporter Akbar Ganji, whose coverage of the 1998 murders of intellectuals in the daily Sobh-e-Emrooz had made him a celebrity in Iran. Ganji was arrested on April 22 for alleged Press Law violations and for participating in a May conference in Berlin on the future of the Iranian reform movement. Several other reformist journalists, intellectuals, and political figures were arrested and tried because of their participation in the conference.
During a November court appearance, Ganji caused a stir by charging that he had been tortured in prison. In later testimony, he named intelligence officials and leading clerics whom he had accused of involvement in the 1998 murders.
As the courts pursued their offensive, the outgoing, conservative-dominated Majlis (Parliament) approved a series of new Press Law amendments that gave authorities even more power to stifle the press. One amendment made it more difficult for publishers of banned newspapers to re-launch their publications under new names, by requiring them to obtain prior permission from the judiciary before applying for a newspaper license.
The incoming, reformist-dominated Majlis tried to annul many of these harsh new laws. But on August 6, Ayatollah Khamenei forbade the Majlis to consider a new press bill, describing it as a threat to national security. “If the enemies infiltrate our press, this will be a big danger to the country’s security and the people’s religious beliefs,” Khamenei wrote in a letter to legislators.
“The current Press Law has succeeded to a point to prevent this big plague. The [proposed] bill is not legitimate, nor is it in the interests of the system and the revolution.”
With all the major alternative newspapers silenced by court order at year’s end, the conservative establishment maintained a virtual media monopoly, since conservative elements within the government control all television and radio broadcasting. Satellite television (as well as the Internet, to some extent) offered many Iranians an alternative news source, despite a government ban on private satellite dishes.
Saeed Hajjarian, Sobh-e-Emrooz
An unidentified gunman shot Hajjarian, a leading adviser to President Mohammad Khatami and the publisher of the newspaper Sobh-e-Emrooz, outside the offices of the Tehran City Council. News accounts suggest that Hajjarian might have been targeted because of accounts published in his newspaper in 1999 linking Intelligence Ministry officials to the murder of several leading reformist intellectuals. (Hajjarian himself served as a deputy minister in the Intelligence Ministry during the 1980s.) After the articles appeared, Iranian authorities were forced to admit that “rogue elements” from within the Intelligence Ministry were responsible for the killings.
Hajjarian was shot twice in the face by a gunman, who then escaped on the back of a high-powered motorcycle driven by an accomplice. Under Iranian law, only government security forces may operate such motorcycles.
Hajjarian is a former hard-liner who helped storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the 1979 Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As one of President Khatami’s closest advisers and a leader of the reformist Participation Party (“Moshariket”), he was one of the principal strategists in the February parliamentary election campaign, in which reformist candidates won three-quarters of the contested seats.
Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, Asr-e-Azadegan, Neshat
An appellate court sentenced Shamsolvaezin, editor of the daily Asr-e-Azadegan, to 30 months in prison for allegedly insulting Islamic principles by publishing a 1999 article that criticized capital punishment in Iran. Shamsolvaezin was taken to Tehran’s Evin prison shortly after the verdict.
The article appeared in the now-defunct daily Neshat, which Shamsolvaezin edited until it was banned in September 1999. On November 27, 1999, a Tehran court sentenced Shamsolvaezin to three years in prison. The appeals court reduced the sentence to 30 months after acquitting him of forging the article, which was written by a London-based activist, Hossein Baqerzadeh.
CPJ condemned Shamsolvaezin’s imprisonment in an April 14 letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In November, CPJ awarded Shamsolvaezin with its annual International Press Freedom Award in recognition of his courageous work in overseeing the publication of several groundbreaking newspapers, each of which were shut down by Tehran’s Press Court between 1998 and 2000. Shamsolvaezin has earned the unofficial distinction as dean of Iran’s once-burgeoning reformist press that erupted onto the scene following the 1997 election of reformist president Muhammad Khatami.
During the year, Shamsolvaezin spent several weeks in solitary confinement in Evin Prison.
Akbar Ganji, Sobh-e-Emrooz, Fat’h
Ganji, a leading investigative reporter for the reformist daily Sobh-e-Emrooz and a member of the editorial board of the pro-reform daily Fat’h, was arrested because of his writings and for attending an April conference in Berlin that Iranian conservatives attacked as un-Islamic. He faced prosecution in both the Press Court and the Revolutionary Court for “conspiring to overthrow the system of the Islamic Republic.”
The Press Court case stemmed from Ganji’s investigative articles about the 1998 killings of several Iranian dissidents and intellectuals. Ganji’s work implicated several top intelligence officials and clerics.
The Revolutionary Court charged him with spreading propaganda against the Islamic regime and threatening national security in his remarks to the Berlin conference on the future of the reform movement in Iran.
On November 9, Ganji made a dramatic court appearance, charging that he had been hung upside down and beaten by guards at Tehran’s Evin Prison, where he was being held in solitary confinement.
On April 23 and 24, judicial authorities ordered the indefinite closure of 13 newspapers and magazines for “continuing to publish articles against the bases of the luminous ordinances of Islam.” The clampdown came three days after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched a scathing tirade against the reformist press.
According to an official press release dated April 23, the newspapers were closed in order to “prevent them from committing new offenses, from affecting society’s opinions, and [from] arousing concern among the people.”
Speaking before a congregation of 100,000 at Tehran’s Grand Mosque on April 20, Khamenei had explicitly accused the reformist press of being foreign agents. “Unfortunately, the same enemy who wants to overthrow the [regime] has found a base in the country,” Khamenei said. “Some of the press have become the base of the enemy.”
CPJ protested the closures in an April 24 letter to Ayatollah Khamenei.
Latif Safari, Neshat
Safari, director of the banned daily Neshat, which had been closed by court order in September 1999, was imprisoned after an appellate court upheld a 30-month jail sentence imposed on September 20, 1999.
Safari was convicted on several counts, including defamation, inciting unrest, and “insulting the sanctity and tenets of Islam.” These charges stemmed from articles published in Neshat, including an opinion piece that challenged the use of capital punishment in Iran.
He is serving his sentence in Tehran’s Evin prison.
In a continuing conservative crackdown on the reformist press, the dailies Sobh-e-Emrooz and Mosharekat and the Isfahan weekly Ava were ordered closed by judicial authorities, according to the state news agency, IRNA.
Iran’s Press Court banned Ava for “publishing false news with the intent of disturbing public opinion,” among other charges. The case was based on complaints by a number of government institutions, including the Intelligence Ministry, the Revolutionary Guards (an elite military force under the direct control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), and the Special Court for Clergy in Qom.
Iranian authorities did not publicly state their justification for closing Sobh-e-Emrooz and Mosharekat (which is directed by President Muhammad Khatami’s brother, Muhammad Reza Khatami). Judicial authorities had previously ordered Sobh-e-Emrooz to close on April 24, but the ban was reversed that same day.
Iran’s conservative Press Court ordered the closure of the moderate daily Ham-Mihan for allegedly publishing false accounts of Islamic principles. The newspaper was run by former Tehran mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi.
Iranian judicial authorities banned the pro-reform daily Mellat one day after the publication of its maiden issue. The reason for the closure was unknown.
Emadeddin Baghi, Fat’h, Neshat
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION
Baghi, who once wrote for the now banned daily Neshat and was a member of the editorial board of another outlawed paper, Fat’h, was detained mid-trial in a court case related to his work as a journalist. On July 17, Tehran’s Press Court sentenced him to five-and-a-half years in prison.
According to the state news agency IRNA, Baghi was charged with publishing articles that “questioned the validity of…Islamic law,” and with “threatening national security, and…spreading unsubstantiated news stories” about the role of Intelligence Ministry agents in the 1998 murders of several Iranian intellectuals and dissidents in 1998.
The charges were based on complaints lodged by former state security officials and a number of government agencies, including the Intelligence Ministry and the conservative-controlled Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
The charges also mentioned a 1999 Neshat piece that Baghi wrote in response to another article, criticizing the death penalty, that had landed Neshat editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin in jail (see April 10 case).
The closed-door trial began on May 1. In late October, an appeals court reduced the sentence to three years. Baghi remained in Tehran’s Evin prison at press time.
The Special Court for Clergy, a conservative tribunal that operates independently of the regular Iranian court system, ordered the Tehran daily Bayan to cease publishing in order to prevent the daily from committing unspecified new “crimes.”
Bayan was run by cleric Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, a former interior minister and aide to President Muhammad Khatami. No reason was given for the move, but reports said the court cited the Iranian Constitution, which states that “the judiciary is entrusted with taking suitable measures to prevent the recurrence of crime.”
Iran’s Press Court ordered the closure of the reformist weekly Gunagoun, claiming that the paper had violated Iranian law in that it was merely a continuation of several newspapers that had already been banned.
According to the state news agency, IRNA, the closure came a day after the court summoned Gunagoun‘s Editor, Fatemeh Farahmandpour, to answer charges of “insulting the regime’s officials, anti-Islamic propaganda, and the dissemination of false news.” Judicial authorities arrived in the afternoon and ordered the occupants of the building to leave immediately, according to IRNA. They then sealed the building that houses Gunagoun‘s offices. The court decision charged that Gunagoun closely resembled the suspended pro-reform papers Jameah, Tous, Neshat, and Asr-e-Azadegan.
Mohammed Reza Zohdi, Arya
Tehran’s Press Court sentenced Zohdi, editor of the now-defunct reformist daily Arya, to a four-month suspended prison term and banned him from practicing journalism for two years.
Two weeks earlier, the journalist was convicted of “inciting public opinion,” “publishing lies,” and “insulting the state” on the basis of articles published in Arya.
Iran’s Press Court suspended the pro-reform weekly Cheshmeh Ardebil for a period of four months. The paper was accused of “disturbing public opinion” and “insulting Islamic sanctities.”
Ahmad Zaid-Abadi, Hamshahri
Zaid-Abadi, a journalist with the moderate daily Hamshahri, was arrested by order of Tehran’s Press Court. The court announced that Zaid-Abadi had been arrested after ignoring a summons to appear before the court. Police searched the journalist’s home and confiscated books and other materials.
Zaid-Abadi was still imprisoned at year’s end. The motive for the arrest was unclear.
Iran’s Press Court ordered the closure of the popular reformist daily Bahar, published by a close aide to reformist president Muhammad Khatami. According to press reports, the newspaper was closed for “disturbing public opinion.” Bahar had been in existence for just three months prior to the closure.
Masud Behnud, free-lancer
Behnud, a free-lance contributor to several reformist newspapers and a noted commentator on Iranian affairs, was arrested by order of Tehran’s Press Court. He was apparently arrested after ignoring an earlier summons to appear in court to hear some 85 complaints that had been leveled against him. The exact nature of the charges is unclear; nor is it known whether they stemmed from his writings or from his other public statements.
Behnud was released on bail on December 16. A ruling is pending in his case.
Ebrahim Nabavi, free-lancer
Nabavi, a popular political satirist who wrote for a number of now banned reformist publications, was arrested by order of Tehran’s Press Court. The arrest followed numerous complaints about Nabavi’s satirical attacks on conservative political leaders.
In a surprising development, Nabavi apologized for his published work during a court session in mid-November, when he pleaded guilty to charges of insulting officials and publishing lies. The court found Nabavi guilty in early January 2001. At press time, it was unclear whether he would be sentenced to prison.
Iran’s hard-line judiciary banned three weekly reformist newspapers, Mihan, Sobh-e-Omid, and Sepideh-e-Zendeghi, for failing to print their business addresses on recent editions and for using the logos of previously banned publications.