Iran toughens press crackdown

Journalists in northern Iran's Gilan Province issued a statement on September 23 calling on the government to lift its recent ban on the daily "Sharq" newspaper. The plea argued that "banning a paper is tantamount to its execution." Such concerns are unlikely to resonate with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whose government has adopted an adversarial attitude toward the media.

Not only is the state closing newspapers that it views as insufficiently sympathetic to the government, but it is also restricting the sources they can use and the way they can cover specific subjects. The effort to shape the news is connected with governmental concern over how the public might judge its diplomatic efforts on the nuclear issue, as well as a desire to control information relating to elections scheduled for December.

Iranian government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said in mid-August that some media outlets have launched a smear campaign against the administration, and he called for legal action against publishers of such "slanderous reports," the dailies "Farhang-i Ashti" and "Hemayat" reported on August 20. Elham made his complaints in a letter to Tehran prosecutor Said Mortazavi.

At a subsequent news conference, reporters asked Ahmadinejad about government efforts to stifle criticism of his administration. He responded by blaming the media: "Look at what you have done to Mr. Elham to prompt him to respond in such a way. Mr. Elham likes you. You put pressure prompting him to write a letter. This is nothing compared to numerous false headlines which some people publish."

The administration's actions and statements suggest that it does not expect any media criticism, despite journalists' traditional watchdog function. Furthermore, it sees it as a duty for the media to report positively on government actions. That explains why, from the Ahmadinejad administration's perspective, national newspapers can be divided into two camps.

Those in the first camp, presidential press adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr says, "consider themselves the supporters and defenders of the serving government and voice support for its policies and strategies," "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on August 26. Those in the second camp backed the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and now oppose the Ahmadinejad administration, criticizing it and opposing its policies, Javanfekr continued.

Mostly connected with reformist parties, he said, they understate the government's strengths, look for weaknesses in its plans, and portray events in a negative light. "The nature and essence of these media are based on the objective of sabotaging the government," Javanfekr said.

Some two weeks later, the government closed the daily "Sharq" (East) and the monthlies "Nameh" (Letter), "Hafez," and "Khatereh." The Press Supervisory Board explained that in August "Sharq" had been given one month to appoint a new managing director and the newspaper replied the following month with a request for more time, ISNA reported on August 11. The ban resulted from the newspaper's failure to "reform itself," as well as its publication of a cartoon that purportedly insulted Ahmadinejad. The daily also was accused of publishing articles that insulted "religious, political, and national figures," and it was accused of "fomenting discord," IRNA reported on September 12.

The closure of "Sharq" was particularly noteworthy because the publication had taken a consistently defiant approach in its reporting. Other newspapers were either openly pro-government or, if critical, affiliated with pro-reform political groups but practicing self-censorship.

The "Sharq" shutdown was not the Ahmadinejad presidency's first salvo against the press. The Press Supervisory Board banned "Karnameh" in mid-August for publishing articles allegedly offensive to morality and chastity, and Managing Editor Negar Eskandarfar received a suspended one-year prison sentence. The same day, pro-reform activist and "Cheshmandaz" Managing Editor Lutfollah Meysami was found guilty of insulting and libeling the police, propagandizing against the system, and publishing materials that damage the system and the country. This was not Meysami's first run-in with the law, as he was summoned to court in September 2003 for allegedly publishing falsehoods.

At the end of August, the Tehran Public Court sentenced Issa Saharkhiz, managing editor of the monthly "Aftab," to four years in prison and barred him from press-related activities for five years. Saharkhiz was found guilty of publishing anticonstitutional articles and of propagandizing against the Islamic republic's political system. He also was found guilty of libel and publishing lies against the state broadcasting agency. The licenses of "Aftab" and sister publication "Akhbar-i Eqtesadi" were revoked.

The state newspaper "Iran" was closed in May for publishing a cartoon in its Friday edition that offended ethnic Azeris and led to riots. It remains closed. The trial of "Iran" Editor Mehrdad Qasemfar and cartoonist Mana Neyestani on charges of acting against national security and creating discord began recently.

The Iranian government is not limiting itself to closing media outlets due to their publication of materials that run afoul of vague laws or cross undefined red lines. It has also acted preemptively by advising publications on the subjects they can discuss and the way in which they can cover them, and it also has taken steps to limit the sources that publications can use in their reporting.

In January, the Intelligence and Security Ministry and the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry instructed two news agencies, ISNA and ILNA, to coordinate their reporting on summonses, arrests, or prosecution of student and political activists with the government, Radio Farda reported on January 12. Rezai Moini of Reporters Without Borders told Radio Farda that this is a "silent" and "informal" process, and, since being inaugurated the Ahmadinejad administration has been telling the press how it can report.

In February, the Supreme National Security Council -- after the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) called for referring Iran to the UN Security Council -- instructed publications to portray the matter in such a way that the country's diplomatic efforts seem successful and the public is not discouraged. In March, the Supreme National Security Council warned editors in chief to avoid publishing political analysis that differs from the country's official policy.

Then, in September, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance reportedly provided publications with a list of 24 "reliable and valid" agencies they could use as news sources. Use of "suspicious" sources -- defined as those that criticize the Ahmadinejad administration or downplay the country's accomplishments in the last year -- was forbidden. The acceptable news sources included the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) and state radio and television (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB), as well as the Fars, ILNA, ISNA, and Mehr news agencies.

International press watchdogs and human rights organizations -- including Amnesty International, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders -- have reported critically on developments in Iran over the last year. In the last month, observers have been especially outspoken about the state of the media. Committee to Defend Press Freedom spokesman Mashallah Shamsolvaezin warned that the country's press is facing one of the darkest periods of the last century, Radio Farda reported on September 6.

After the "Sharq" closure, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said restricting the press is harmful to the national interest and added that it is almost impossible to restrict the dissemination of information nowadays, the Mehr News Agency reported on September 13.

At least two factors explain the timing of the current media crackdown. The delicate state of nuclear talks involving Iran and the international community is one factor. If the Security Council decides to impose sanctions on Iran, the government will want to control the way Iranians are informed about this. It will seek to cast blame on other parties and avoid taking responsibility for its own diplomatic failings.

The fundamentalist Ahmadinejad administration seeks to control all information relating to the December polls for the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils, furthermore, so that the government's ideological allies will be elected and criticism of the flawed election process will be muted.