Iran's right strikes at liberal press

Yesterday's ban on 12 newspapers will only harden resolve for reforms, analysts say.

The newsroom of the English-language Iran News suddenly fell ominously silent as a reporter rushed in and shouted the latest: Four more reformist newspapers were being shut down immediately.

That was quickly followed by news yesterday that another eight pro-reform newspapers and magazines had been suspended, leaving just four reformist publications on sale at newsstands.

The closures are the biggest single blow yet to Iran's vociferous liberal press, which is widely seen as the voice for the popular reform agenda of President Mohammad Khatami.

Iran's hard-line conservatives - the self-declared guardians of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution - are attacking the media in the wake of February's parliamentary elections that were swept by reformist candidates. This is not the first media crackdown. But it is by far the most sweeping and potentially explosive to date.

In recent days and weeks, a string of well-known reform-minded editors and writers have been imprisoned. One even survived an assassination attempt, causing political analysts to talk of a "dangerous time" in Iran.

"This is the most concerted effort by the conservatives so far, because they understand that three-quarters of the population is not following them, and that they are on the verge of losing their privileges," says an Iranian political scientist who asked not to be named.

"The conservatives believe they must remove Khatami to achieve their aims, but Khamenei won't let them do that," he adds. "So these steps are to make the political scene more tough, more violent."

Reform leaders called for calm, recalling how the closure of a reform newspaper - followed by student protests - last July led to six days of violence in Tehran. "People seem to have learned that clashes are not the way to advance the cause of reform. Taking to the streets and breaking windows may feel good, but there won't be a bloody result this time," says another Iranian analyst.

"The right is thinking: 'If we are going to go down, we will go down fighting,' " says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, deputy editor of the English-language Iran News, whose newsroom has been silenced. "But at this stage, they can't prevent it, only delay it."

"The big question is: What are [the hard-liners] after?" asks an analyst, who also requested anonymity. "Maybe they can stop a few newspapers, but so what? There will be more newspapers, and more people willing to stick their necks out.

"The election showed that they are not in favor at all, so what is the purpose of all this? Maybe they can sleep better tonight, because there are three less newspapers, but it doesn't solve their problem."

Mr. Khatami's landslide victory in the 1997 presidential elections shocked the conservatives, because of his message for a kinder, gentler Islamic society based on the rule of law and less-strict social and press rules.

Hard-liners have fought back, against what many here consider to be Iran's second popular "revolution." The conservative-led Council of Guardians has overturned the election of several reform candidates across the country, sparking protests and riots in several cities.

Right-wing ayatollahs have charged that journalists in all media "are working against Islam," and one urged his followers to "kill" [reformers]. Iran's budding democracy has been just as unsettling for stale, authoritarian Mideast regimes.

The clampdown is in line with a tough new press law passed by the outgoing parliament a week ago. It enables easier prosecution of journalists, forbids publishing the same newspaper under a different name - a regular pro-reform tactic.

While professing continued support for Khatami, Iran's supreme religious leader Sayed Ali Khamenei - whose power far exceeds that of the president - weighed in last week, with an apparent nod for tough measures against the press.

"Unfortunately, some of the newspapers have become bases of the enemy," the ayatollah told tens of thousands on Thursday. He accused 10 to 15 Iranian newspapers of "insulting" state bodies and undermining the Islamic revolution.

At Friday prayers a week earlier, Khamenei decried "US style" reforms. Two days later, amid rumors that a military coup to oust Khatami was imminent, the Khamenei-controlled Revolutionary Guards struck at the press.

"When the time comes, these people will feel a blow to the head delivered by the revolution," the guards warned in a statement. Senior commanders later denied that could "ever" make a military coup.

Calling for dialogue and "logic," Khatami tried to calm tensions on Saturday. "We should all respect the boundaries of our social sanctities and refrain from tensions," he said. "But refraining from tensions does not mean keeping silent...."

On Saturday Akbar Ganji, one of Iran's top investigative journalists, was arrested and immediately imprisoned. Soon, two other high-profile editors were arrested.

"Taking dozens of people to jail or assassinating them will solve no problem," Mr. Ganji was quoted as saying by the Iran News Agency. "Reforms will succeed, and the future is bright."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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