Immediately following his election, President Khatami served notice of his intention to deliver on his promises to uphold the freedom of the press by appointing Dr. Ataollah Mohajerani to the key post of Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. In his first speech as minister before the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majles), the conservative-dominated Iranian parliament, in September 1997, Mohajerani declared: "I am in favor of cultural tolerance.... We must create a climate in the Islamic Republic in which individuals will be able to express their views on various issues."
Soon after, however, militants from the ansar-e hezbollahi, the self-proclaimed partisans of the party of God, ransacked the offices of the independent Iran-e Farda (Tomorrow's Iran) magazine. Minister of Culture Mohajerani promptly condemned the attack: "This kind of action will lead to anarchy. All protests against the contents of a publication must be done through legal channels and in a rational manner."1 Although it was unprecedented for a minister to speak out against the brazen actions of the hezbollahi, no legal action was taken against the attackers or their leaders. Nevertheless, from the outset both Khatami and Mohajerani denounced such violent actions as serious threats to the rule of law.
The new administration followed through on its commitments by restoring licenses to a number of banned publications expressing different ideological viewpoints. For example, in October 1997, the authorities restored the license of the radical daily Jahan -e Eslam (World of Islam), published by Hadi Khamene'i, brother of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, after a two-and-a-half-year ban. In November 1997 the newspaper Payam-e Daneshju (Students' Message), which the Press Court (see below) had banned for five years in 1996, was permitted to resume its operations. Earlier the culture and Islamic guidance ministry had lifted the ban, imposed prior to the May 1997 elections, on Aftab-Gardoun (Orbit of the Sun), a youth-oriented newspaper published by the then-mayor of Tehran,Gholam Hossain Karbaschi. However, the judge of the Press Court immediately issued a statement saying that the ministry lacked authority to overturn a court order and decreed that Aftab-Gardoun remain closed.
By the end of 1997 the press was growing in confidence and beginning to insist that powerful state institutions should be accountable for their actions and carry out their functions in a transparent manner. After Head of the Judiciary Mohammad Yazdi said publicly in January 1998 that it was none of the media's business who he sent to jail, the Tehran media protested vigorously. In his speech, Ayatollah Yazdi exploded in anger against the media in general. "What is going on?," he asked. "We tell those people: What is your business? Why would we tell you what is going on? It does not concern you.... Do we have to tell you the reason for an arrest?"2 Salam (Hello), a pro-Khatami daily, complained on December 30 that Yazdi "believes the judiciary is not answerable to the public.... Why should the judiciary react with anger to questions put to it by the public? Why are such questions not recognized as the legitimate rights of Muslim citizens?" The Journalists' Union, which had been established a few weeks after President Khatami's inauguration, issued a public statement one week after Ayatollah Yazdi's speech charging that " any measure to obstruct the free dissemination of the news and information...is considered interference with freedom of the press."3
The April 1998 arrest of Tehran mayor Karbaschi, a prominent ally of President Khatami, and the alleged torture in detention of several municipal officials, brought forth more outspoken media criticism of the judiciary. Sectors of the judiciary retaliated by ordering police raids on three Tehran newspapers which had been supportive of the mayor: Hamshahri (Fellow Citizen), Iran, and Jame'eh (Society). Editors said that police came with search warrants signed by a Tehran district court and insisted on seeing advance copies of editions being readied for printing. The three targeted papers had strongly criticized "The Campaign to End Crimes of Honor" and the detention of Karbaschi, stating bluntly that some officials were abusing the law for political purposes. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which has responsibility for overseeing the media, said it had not been informed of the searches and learned about them only after the targeted papers had complained. Minister Mohajerani angrily stated that the searches were a violation of existing laws.4 On April 18, the ministry formally condemned the police raids and demanded that judicial and security authorities provide an official explanation of the action. Deputy Minister Ahmad Borghani, whose office was responsible for the press and had authorized the statement, was summoned by the Prosecutor's Office of Tehran (Dadsara-e Tehran) to answer charges that he had "published lies."5 Although no further action appears to have been taken in this proceeding, Borghani resigned in protest in January 1999.
There were further raids on other newspapers. In quick succession in early August 1998, Panshambehah (Thursdays) , Gozaresh-e Rouz (Daily Report), and Khanneh (Home) were forced to close under official pressure. Hojatoleslam Mohammed Reza Zaeri, editor of Khanneh, and Mohammed Mahdavi, editor of Gozaresh-e Rouz, were also imprisoned by order of a general court prosecutor. They were released after one week, but Khanneh remains closed and Gozaresh-e Rouz was only able to resume publication in November 1998.
The parliament then stepped into the struggle over press regulation, seeking to limit the ability of the media to debate sensitive issues relating to the role of women in society and family law. In April 1998 the parliament passed a bill "on the exploitation of women," making it a crime "to create division between women and men through defending [women's] rights outside the legal and Sharia [Islamic law] frameworks." The law also forbade publishing pictures of unveiled women. Minister of Culture Mohajerani opposed the bill, but his objections were overruled bythe conservative majority in the parliament. The bill passed a second reading in parliament in August 1998 and became law. By the end of 1998, the conservatives appeared to have gained the upper hand with the closure of several independent newspapers, including the popular daily Jame'eh (Society).
The story of Jame'eh illustrates the mixed fortunes of the independent press under President Khatami. After beginning publication in February 1998, Jame'eh had quickly established itself as one of Iran's most popular newspapers by providing a forum for open debate about a broad range of political, social, and cultural issues. For example, in March 1998 it carried a sympathetic story about the work of Amnesty International (AI) after an AI delegation attended a U.N. human rights meeting in Tehran. It led the way in critical coverage of the treatment of Mayor Karbaschi and his staff. This sparked resentment by conservative forces within the government, who used the broad language of the Press Law to bring about its closure. In June 1998 the Press Court ruled Jame'eh to be in violation of the Press Law for allegedly misquoting the commander of the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards Corps), but the jury recommended that the court not impose the maximum punishment because it was the daily's first offense. Two days later, however, the judge revoked Jame'eh's license and shut it down. The Ministry of Culture swiftly announced that Jame'eh could continue publication while it appealed revocation of its license. Jame'eh was the first publication to have its license revoked after President Khatami's inauguration, but others were to follow.
Jame'eh faced charges arising from four separate complaints from different parts of the government. General Rahim Safavi, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, objected when it quoted him as saying that the Pasdaran "are seeking to root out counter-revolutionaries wherever they are. We have to cut the throats of some and cut out the tongues of others."6 In another speech, also in June 1998, General Safavi remarked that counter-revolutionaries had been "left free to set up their newspapers" and stated, "we will go after them when the time is ripe."7 The prisons administration objected to Jame'eh's coverage of the high cost of prison food. Mohsen Rafiq Dost, the head of the Foundation of the Dispossessed, objected to allegations of corruption in his running of the conglomerate. The public prosecutor complained about the publication of a photograph alleged to show an image of the deposed first president of the Islamic Republic, Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr. Minister Mohajerani, calling publication of the photograph "a flagrant sign of the abuse of freedom," remarked that the opponents of liberty could also be those who do not respect the limits of freedom.8 The court, ruling against Jame'eh's appeal, ordered the paper closed for, in its words, "publishing lies and disrupting public order." The appeal hearing had taken place in secret, contrary to international due process standards, and the newspaper was informed of the verdict without even knowing that the hearing had taken place.
Within a few days of the closure, a new daily appeared under the title Tous, produced by the same editorial team and with much the same content as the banned Jame-eh. "The publication of a previously forbidden newspaper under a new name is illegal," Head of the Judiciary Yazdi objected. "We are asking the ministry of culture to take action before someone else does."9 In fact, article 7 of the Press Law, which sets out reasons for banning newspapers, prohibits publication of a newspaper using the same name as an existing title or a previously banned title but does not mention a newspaper using essentially the same staff under a new title. Yazdi's words appear to have been taken as a signal by hezbollahi enforcers, who shortly thereafter attacked the paper's editorial offices and beat up the editor, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin.
The conflict over freedom of the press continued to intensify in the latter half of 1998 and led to a stand-off between President Khatami and the leader, Ayatollah Khamene'i. On September 10, hezbollahi physically assaulted culture minister Mohajerani and Vice-President Abdullah Nouri as they were attending ceremonies in honor ofIranians killed during the war with Iraq. Responding to this provocation, President Khatami asserted that "the authorities must not dither or show mercy in dealing with this ugly vengeance against the rule of law and freedom. The law breakers, who are either ignorant or have a mission, understand no logic but force."10 (In January 1999, those alleged responsible for the assault were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms.)
A few days after the president's remarks, however, on September 15, 1998, Leader Ayatollah Khamene'i threatened to silence independent newspapers through other means should the government of President Khatami fail to do so. Khamene'i characterized the offending media as "a dangerous, creeping cultural movement...writing against Islam.... I'm now waiting to see what the officials will do. Of course, stopping these vicious actions is not difficult, and I do not care what the international organizations would say. We will never care about them."11 The next day, Tous managers Hamid Reza Jalei-Pour and Mohammad Sadegh Javadi Hessar, editor Mashalla Shamsolvaezin, and staff writer Seyyed Ebrahim Nabavi were arrested by order of the Islamic Revolutionary Courts (see below) on charges of publishing articles "against security and general interests." The newspaper was ordered closed by the Supervisory Board within the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Apparently buckling under political pressure, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohajerani supported the closure of Tous, even though the procedures followed bypassed the Press Court (see below). That same month more than two thirds of the members of parliament signed a letter calling for trials of accused journalists before Islamic Revolutionary Courts, without the jury trial safeguards provided for in the constitution. Also in September, the judiciary declared that it was creating a special body to monitor the conduct of the press and to refer offending writers to Islamic Revolutionary Courts. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance protested, insisting that "it is necessary to deal with press violations according to the law, in general courts and with the presence of a jury."12 The four Tous newspapermen, Jalei-Pour, Javadi Hessar, Shamsolvaezin, and Nabavi, were released in October, but as of August 1999 the charges before the Islamic Revolutionary Courts still stood, including the charge of "enmity with God" which carries the death penalty.
On November 26, 1998, President Khatami, speaking to newspaper editors and publishers, clearly endorsed regulation of the press in accordance with existing legal safeguards:
There is no doubt about it, every complaint against the press should go, in the first instance, before a press court with a jury. If it is not done like that, then the press should be the first to protest.13
The president also supported the principle of freedom of expression. "We can block expression of an opinion for a short period of time," he said, "but if we do it, then that opinion will be forced underground and will result in a later explosion." Rather than advocating a heavy state regulatory hand, the president urged the press to be self-regulating and to "understand the sensitivities of the society."14
Speaking at Friday prayers just two days later, former Head of the Judiciary Ayatollah Yazdi presented a contrary view: "The constitution does not give freedom to those who are mocking religious sanctities," he asserted.
The press is not free to question fundamental Islamic principles. Those writers who questioned inheritance and blood money law, or who talk about velayat-e faqih [rule of the Supreme Jurist15], who gave them the right to talk about these subjects? If there is no boundary then corruption will start. Our constitution does not give the press this freedom.16
After the closure of Tous in September 1998, pressure on the press continued to mount. The independent newspapers Rah-e No (New Way), Tavana (Capable), Jame'eh, Salem (Healthy Society), Navid Esfahan (Gospel of Isfahan), Iran-e Farda (Tomorrow's Iran), and Mubayyin (Announcer) were closed by the Press Court. Adineh (Friday), a cultural monthly not previously known to have been the subject of complaints, was ordered closed by the Press Court in February 1999. In the cases of Jame-eh Salem and Adineh, the jury found them in violation of the Press Law but recommended minimum punishment, not including closure. The judge disregarded the jury's recommendations and closed them both. However, it is important to note that all of the above titles with the exception of Tous continue to publish despite the closure orders issued by the court. They justified their continued operation on the grounds that they had not received the formal closure order.
Following the Adineh decision, the jury protested the judge's action in that case by not attending the next hearing, involving a complaint against Keyhan (Galaxy) newspaper. This forced a postponement in the proceedings. At the second Keyhan hearing, the judge dismissed the six jurors who had absented themselves. Since then the Press Court in Tehran has not been able to convene because of the unavailability of the six jurors, who filed a lawsuit with the High Judicial Disciplinary tribunal against the judge claiming that he had acted improperly in dismissing them. In August 1999, the tribunal found that Saeid Mortazavi, the judge in the press court in Tehran, had exceeded his authority in ordering the dismissal of the jurors, but recommended no punishment. He remains in office.17 President Khatami also established a special commission to review the functioning of the press courts, but the result of the commission's review has not yet been published.
The role of the jury in press courts is one among many contentious elements in the system of regulation of the press. A second is the ability of the Supervisory Press Board (see below) to close newspapers by administrative order. For example, in January 1999, Shalamcheh , a radical weekly, and Fakour (Thinker), a monthly, were ordered closed by the board, applying the same administrative procedure employed in the initial closure of Tous.
A third crucial issue in the field of press regulation is the use of courts other than the press courts to punish writers for views expressed in the media. In the case of Tous, charges were brought against writers, editor, and publishers in the Revolutionary Court. These courts do not meet international standard for independent, impartial tribunals, nor do they provide for a fair and public hearing as also required in article 14 (1) of the ICCPR. In other cases, Special Courts for the Clergy (see below) have been used to prosecute clerics promoting independent ideas in the press. For example, in June 1998, Mohssen Saeidzadeh was detained and charges brought against him by a Special Court for the Clergy arising from articles he had written promoting reform in family law and respect for women's rights. In February 1999, Mohssen Kadivar was detained and a case brought against him in a Special Court for the Clergy arising from his journalistic writings. Such courts have also been used to prosecute clerics who have expressed dissident opinions in their preaching and teaching.
In November 1998, Hamshahri reported that the Parliamentary Research Center was drafting legislation that would make writers, and editors, and publishers in some circumstances, liable to prosecution in courts other than presscourts if articles are found to be offensive.18 On March 4, 1999, a Special Court for the Clergy ruled that it would prosecute any newspaper that even mentioned the name of Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri,19 whom Ayatollah Khomeini had designated as his successor as Leader and who has emerged as a persistent critic of the institution of velayat-e faqih. Since Ayatollah Montazeri's removal as designated successor to the Leader by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, Montazeri and his relatives and followers have been subjected to persecution because of their beliefs.
In March 1999, Zan (Woman) magazine was ordered closed by an Islamic Revolutionary Court for publishing part of a New Year's greeting to the Iranian people from the former queen, Farah Pahlavi, now living in exile, and for a publishing a cartoon deemed to be defamatory of the Islamic juridical tradition of diyah (blood money). Other magazines published Farah Pahlavi's message in full without any repercussions.
In June 1999, a Revolutionary Court ordered the closure of the student bi-weekly newspaper Hoveyat-e Khish (Self Identity). Its editor, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, and director, Hossein Kashani were detained on accusations of "spreading anti-Islamic propaganda." Kashani was released in June but as of mid-August Tabarzadi remained in detention.
On July 7, 1999, in a further use of an exceptional court to close an independent newspaper, a Special Court for the Clergy ordered the closure of Salam on accusations of having "confused public opinion." The publication was ordered to remain closed until the court finished its inquiries. The closure came after Salam had published documents appearing to reveal high-level plans to silence the independent media by various means, including the deadly attacks against at least five writers and activists in last months of 1998 and the amendments to the Press Law that were introduced in parliament that same day, July 7. 20
This increasing recourse to special courts to punish the independent press has been part of an unrelenting conservative campaign against the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. In January 1999, Deputy Minister Ahmed Borghani resigned over the constant interference in press freedom. "I wanted to be witness to the rebirth of the press, not its death," he said in a farewell speech to his colleagues in the ministry:
They accuse us of trying to create a free press. They accuse us of closing our eyes to violations of press regulations. It was not clear what the legal rights of the press are...their focus is to close the windows which bring in fresh air, and this pressure is from all sides.21
Minister of Culture Mohajerani commented that he had not wanted Borghani to resign, and asserted that "our policy is the continuation of the president's policy of promoting the rule of law. Within the press law, the rights of the press are clear." Mohajerani nonetheless accepted Borghani's resignation in the context of steps in parliament for his own impeachment. When the attempt to impeach Mohajerani came to a vote in the parliament in May 1999, the minister stated that "tolerance does not mean a weakening of values, a thought has to be responded to with another thought. Freedom is as fragile as ... a crystal glass."22
Mohajerani survived the impeachment motion by a vote of 135 to 121. Nevertheless, the pressure on Mohajerani and others associated with greater press freedom continued. During May charges were prepared against a seniorofficial in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Issa Sakharkhiz. He faces up to three years in prison after granting permission to Zan newspaper to produce a special edition for the Tehran International Book Fair while the newspaper was under a closure order. His trial opened before a Special Court for Public Employees on May 31, 1999 and was continuing as of August 1999.
The judge of the Tehran Press Court, Saeid Mortazavi, unable to procede with trials after dismissal of the jurors, required that accused persons post high bail in order to avoid detention. On May 29 two prominent supporters of President Khatami, Fereydoun Verdinejad, the director of the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), and Mohammed Reza Zohdi, the publisher of Arya, a daily newspaper, were arrested. Verdinejad was released after six hours on payment of the equivalent of the equivilan of U.S.$50,000 bail. Zohdi was released on June 2, 1999 after paying the equivalent of U.S.$30,000 bail. In two separate prosecutions, Mr. Zohdi faces charges before a press court of "publishing slanderous material, disturbing public opinion and exposing military secrets." Mr. Verdinejad faces similar charges before the Special Court for Public Employees, in addition to charges of "mockery of public organizations" and embezzlement.
In what appears to be part of the same wave of pressure on the independent media, the publishers of Sobh-e Emrouz (This Morning), Zaman (Time) and Neshat (Happiness) were summoned to appear before the Press Court on May 30, 1999. Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nouri, the impeached former minister of the interior, elected leader of Tehran City Council, and publisher of Khordad, was also summoned to appear before a Special Court for the Clergy on the same day. As of August 1999 they were all at liberty awaiting trial.
On May 30, 1999, in response to this pressure, the Journalists Union issued a statement protesting these judicial actions against press freedom, noting that "[u]nfortunately in the past few months the press community is witnessing a series of measures by certain judicial sources which give cause for concern." The statement called on the judiciary to "prevent moves which tend to disturb journalists' activities."23 Supporters of the independent press within the government also responded. On June 3, the deputy minister of culture for the press, Shaban Shahidi, questioned the function of the Press Court. "Why are journalists being treated like criminals?" he asked, noting the high bail demanded by the court in recent cases and the fact that journalists were being brought to the court "one after another" in recent weeks.24
Kazem Shukri, editor of the center feature pages of Sobh-e Emrouz, a reformist daily, was detained by order of the Press Court on July 20, 1999, following publication of an article which, according to the Tehran public prosecutor, distorted and insulted Islam. The Press Affairs department of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance issued a statement on July 21 protesting that Shukri's detention and interrogation were "unprecedented" and in violation of the Press Law. As of mid-August, Shukri was free pending trial.
Having failed to control the press through closures, prosecutions of editors and publishers, and intimidation, the conservatives turned to promoting amendments to the Press Law. The proposed amendments to the Press Law which had been prepared and submitted to the Majlis by twenty conservative deputies were passed in a first reading on July 7, 1999 by 125 votes to ninety with fifty-five deputies absent.
The proposed amendments would change the composition of the five-person Press Supervisory Board and the three-person selection board of the press jury by adding representatives of the Islamic Propagation Organization and the Friday Congregational Prayer leader. The amendments would also authorize Revolutionary Courts to prosecute writers and journalists who overstep the bounds of permitted criticism. "If this situation continues then a lot of independent newspapers will not be able to continue publication," observed the editor of Khordad, Ali Hekmat.25 Conservative parliamentarians, like Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, defended the proposed amendments. "The press is a gateway for cultural invasion, so let us take measures," he said.26
The proposed amendments to the Press Law would allow courts to force news reporters to reveal their sources, bar those involved in "anti-establishment" activities from holding any posts in any press institution in the country, and hold the press responsible for any articles that incite or encourage acts of violence against national security or the "interests of the Islamic establishment."27 "The aim of those who have prepared these amendments," noted Azam Nouri, legal and parliamentary deputy of the Minsitry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, "was not to clear up ambiguities in the present Press Law."28 The amendments were denounced by reformists including Minister of Culture Mohajerani, who told the parliament during the debate that "we have to create laws in accordance with freedom, not freedom according to our laws."29 Supporters of President Khatami generally tried to play down the significance of the new draft amendments, set to be adopted after a detailed examination by parliament in the next few months, pointing out that there was still a period of months of negotiation before a final vote on new amendments would be taken.