The battle of the pen in Iran

As a strict press law awaits parliament, conservatives and reformersfight for control of media.

Today the front line in Iran's battle between reformists and conservatives is a white building on Africa Street. Wire-mesh screens are bolted across windows to deflect grenade attacks (there's been one already). And the modern building is ringed by a tall wrought-iron fence with sharpened tines on top.

Here in the fortress-like offices of Khordad, a daily newspaper, journalists see themselves as shock troops on a mission to reshape Iranian thinking. "This is the most important battlefield," says Emadedin Baghi, a bearded Khordad columnist who once trained as a cleric. Shifting metaphors, he adds: "The press today is like a bottle of life for reformists: If it is not broken, reformists will stay; if it is broken, they will not."

It is a view of the media shared by Iran's conservative factions. Six newspapers have been shut down in the past year, and likely to be next is Khordad - whose embattled director, Abdullah Nouri, is a popular senior cleric and former interior minister now in court facing charges of apostasy.

The broader issue is the hardness of the Islamic state, born through revolution 20 years ago and marked by uncompromising and, say critics, repressive clerical rule. The reformist camp is led by President Mohamad Khatami, who won a landslide victory in 1997 elections but has struggled to instill tolerance and democracy.

Mr. Khatami's popular mandate paved the way for reformist confidence, but hard-liners still control every other lever of power - the judiciary, parliament, and security forces.

Parliamentary elections due next February may adjust that balance, but hard-liners have sought to maximize their chances. Last July they cracked down on student demonstrations, which were sparked by the closing of the newspaper Salam. They are also trying to remove from the political scene freshly anointed icons of reform such as Mr. Nouri - who won more votes than any other politician in local elections last February.

And conservatives in government have taken issue with the press. The powerful Council of Experts in September accused the media of "revealing their disbelief in the [supreme religious] leader, the prophet [Muhammad], and the clergy." It blamed a "number of penholders" for supporting the "enemy" during student unrest in July.

Iran's supreme leader himself, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, last year decried the reformist press as the "crawling cultural advance of the enemy."

Right-wing vigilantes have attacked newspapers and journalists, and a year ago five intellectuals - three of them writers - died in a string of murders carried out by elements within the intelligence ministry. One suspect, according to the official version, has since committed suicide in jail.

The most recent newspaper banning was of Neshat, third in a series of closed titles that were put out by the same reformist team. Editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin was picked up last Tuesday and taken to Tehran's Evin prison.

The risks are part of the job description for Iran's iconoclastic journalists, who seem to relish the challenge. "To reach for something, you have to pay for it," says Akbar Ganji, a prominent columnist and editorial board member of Sobhe-e-Emrouz, another vibrant daily. Like many influential writers here, he has spent time in prison.

"We are reaching a stage of democracy that has a cost," Mr. Ganji says. He points to Argentina, Chile, and other Latin American countries where thousands died and more went missing, paying a "heavy cost" to reform dictatorship.

By comparison, casualties of Iran's push for change have been few. He hopes the bloodless Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia will be Iran's model.

"We will write, write, and write until we find the truth," he says.

That attitude has struck a chord with Iranians, who often stand in line before dawn to get a six-cent copy of their choice of reformist newspapers, from among the 20 dailies on sale - three times more than were available before Khatami emphasized press freedom.

"In the past, nobody was buying papers because there was no reason to buy them," says an Asian diplomat in Tehran. "Those journalists have been very courageous and undergone much suffering to print these things."

"Each paper reflects a political current in Iran," adds Sadiq Zibakalam, a political scientist at the University of Tehran. "Because of the lack of a political medium - such as normal political parties - the struggle is very much reflected in newspapers, and that is why newspapers occupy such an important place.... If you ask me as a political scientist what is the most important achievement of Khatami in these two years, it is press freedom."

Few of the reformist writers question the legitimacy of the revolution itself, or whether Iran should have an Islamic state. Like Khatami, they argue for some kind of workable interpretation of Islam that combines religion with liberalism, pluralism, and the rule of law in a civil society.

But hard-liners long used to the perks of power and unaccountability are digging in. A sweeping new press law before parliament would give the police, intelligence ministry, and judiciary the right to veto publication licenses and would empower judges to overrule jury verdicts on the press. For the first time, individual journalists would be held accountable, not just their directors.

"At this stage, we are on the wrestling mat, but to me the winner will be the one who has more logic and wisdom," says Khordad editor Ali Hekmat.

What drives these writers to push the limits? "When you see your country unwell, it is your natural obligation to treat it. And when you enter the press, this is a case of life and death. Once you make that decision, you know no fear," says writer Baghi.

And in case of defeat? "We don't call it martyrdom, in which you lose your life for God," he explains. "We call it issar, which means you sacrifice your power, influence, title, and prosperity in a religious way."

For Ganji, more openness - even victory - is a matter of time. "We opened the door [of press freedom], and all these genies jumped out," he says. "The power-hungry leaders are trying to catch them and put them back, but they can't. These genies are instead duplicating themselves, causing people to have new goals, expectations, and demands."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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