Iran Briefing: Full Court Press

As Iran goes to the polls, an aggressive conservative crackdown has reduced the pro-Khatami press to a shadow of its former self.
Tehran — On the eve of a presidential election that is expected to return President Muhammed Khatami to office, the liberal press that has backed his reformist agenda for the past four years is in nearly complete disarray.

Since last year, the conservative establishment’s relentless assault on pro-reform journalists and newspapers has reversed most of the press freedom gains that followed Khatami’s election in 1997. Although newspapers and journalists had often been targets of official harassment in previous years, the scope of the crackdown is unprecedented. Since last year, at least 40 newspapers have been shut down and numerous outspoken journalists have been prosecuted and jailed on vague charges such as insulting Islamic principles in their writings.

The liberal press that emerged under Khatami provided the backbone of support for the new president and his agenda of social and political liberalization. During that period, dozens of new publications started covering topics such as official corruption, the undemocratic behavior of the ruling clerical establishment, and the fundamental debate over Iran’s theocratic form of government.

The climate is very different today. Only eight liberal newspapers are still publishing. At least five liberal journalists are in prison because of their work, hundreds of other journalists are unemployed, and many have gone to work for conservative newspapers in order to make money to support their families. Many journalists write under pseudonyms when they publish anything controversial, and a great number have abandoned journalism altogether for more secure jobs.

Iranians seem less enthusiastic about reading newspapers nowadays. Many have lost track of which papers are still on newsstands and which have been shut down. Total newspaper circulation in Iran has dropped from 3,120,000 before last year’s crackdown to 1,750,000 in March of this year, according to the Association of Press Freedom, a local advocacy group.

Similarly, political books were very popular last year, but a drag on the market at a recent book fair in Tehran, said Mahboubeh Gholizadeh, a book publisher who also edits the women’s monthly Farzaneh. Instead, people are reading more novels and books on culture and the arts. “People are fed up with the war between hardliners and reformists,” Gholizadeh told CPJ. “Like children whose parents are constantly fighting, they would like them to divorce once and for all so they can have peace and quiet and a sense of normalcy.”

Local journalists estimate that in order to make ends meet, between 20 and 30 percent of liberal journalists who lost their jobs after their newspapers were shut down have been forced to take jobs at the more secure conservative publications. This trend may help the reformist cause in the long run, but it cannot replace the vibrant liberal press that flourished under Khatami until last year.

“They are more cautious now,” explained the pro-reform journalist Issa Saharkhiz, publisher of the monthly Aftab. Saharkhiz used to publish the daily newspaper Akhbar-e Eqtesad (“Economic News”). Along with several dozen other publications, it was closed down by court order last year in the wake of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fiery April 20, 2000 speech attacking the reformist press.

“Now they understand the sensitivities of the hardliners,” Saharkhiz said. “They don’t attack the judiciary, and they refrain from talking about religion or the Leader [Khamenei].”

Nevertheless, Saharkhiz is optimistic about the future. Crucially, he points out, ideological cracks are beginning to appear in the once-monolithic Iranian judiciary.
On May 19, for instance, the Appeals Court slashed the 10-year jail sentence of journalist Akbar Ganji, who was jailed in the spring of last year, and cancelled Ganji’s additional sentence of five years internal exile. The court ruled that Ganji would be released after posting bail of US$75,000.

And morale is not only a problem for the victims of the crackdown. According to Saharkhiz, many judges no longer use their real names in court. The judge of Tehran’s notorious Revolutionary Court, for example, is known only as Ahmadi. “They wouldn’t be hiding themselves if they believed in what they were doing,” said Saharkhiz, adding that the judiciary has also had difficulty finding “suitable” jurors to serve at the Press Court in Tehran.

Press Court jurors are appointed for two years, and decide every case before the court during their term. The current 12-man jury began work eight months ago, but several jurors were dismissed after they decided that defendants were either not guilty or that their guilt did not deserve the stiff sentences being demanded.

As for the future of the reformist press, much will depend on the result of Friday’s election. Saharkhiz argues that an impressive turnout for Khatami could put the conservatives back on the defensive. That, in turn, could rekindle public interest in the press. “Our people have learned to bend their heads when the wind blows,” he says.