Independent newspaper editors, publishers, and journalists in Iran are suffering arbitrary detention, assault and prosecution, Human Rights Watch charged in a report Academic Leaders Speak Out in Defense of Embattled Iranian Scholar .

The closure of Neshat (Happiness) newspaper in early September is the fourth time this year that the courts have closed down a major independent newspaper that supports President Khatami's reform agenda. This closure, and the sentencing of Neshat's publisher, Latif Safari, to a 30-month suspended prison term, has again demonstrated the vulnerability of the press to politically-motivated attacks.

Human Rights Watch today called on the Iranian government to replace the Press Law of 1985, which restricts freedom of press, with legislation that protects and upholds the right to freedom of expression. The Iranian parliament is currently considering amendments to the 1985 law which would, on the contrary, weaken its limited safeguards for press freedom. They would make journalists liable for prosecution in exceptional courts such as the Special Court for the Clergy, or the Revolutionary Court, where international fair-trial standards are disregarded.

"The press has become a human-rights victim in Iran's political struggle," said Hanny Megally, Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The only way to protect press freedom is to write it clearly into law."

The Human Rights Watch report, "‘As Fragile as a Crystal Glass:' Press Freedom in Iran," charts the tumultuous history of the press under President Khatami-- a period during which the press has shown diversity and vibrancy despite suffering attacks from the conservative-dominated courts and from armed groups who have beaten journalists and ransacked newspaper offices. Independent journalists were among those killed in a wave of political murders at the end of 1998, which created a climate of fear but did not succeed in stifling the independent spirit of the press. In May 1999, the government minister most closely associated with press freedom, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ataollah Mohajerani, narrowly avoided impeachment by the conservative-controlled parliament.

The report also describes the domestic and international legal framework within which the press operates in Iran. Sweeping language in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic qualifies and undermines the right to freedom of expression. The Press Law itself contains contradictory provisions and imprecise language which has failed to uphold the right in practice.

In the absence of legally-recognized political parties, the press in Iran has taken on the role of mouthpiece for competing political interests. The struggle to control the press, described in the report, is in many ways the struggle to control the future direction of the Islamic Republic as a whole. The press is likely to be a political battleground in the run-up to parliamentary elections in February 2000 and beyond.