Since April 2000, more than thirty independent newspapers and magazines have been closed down in Iran, usually by order of the judiciary, in direct violation of both Iranian law and of Iran's obligations under international human rights law, including as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to uphold freedom of expression.
The independent media's contentious relations with judicial authorities date back to before the Khatami era. The Press Court and other judicial authorities had closed numerous titles in previous years, but after 1997 the country witnessed a rapidly expanding independent print media expressing a wide array of opinions.
The Press Court is a branch of the General Court that usually deals with offenses related to the press. According to Article 168 of the Constitution, trials for press offenses should be held openly and in the presence of a jury, whose composition is defined in the Press Law. Article 6 sets out loosely defined restrictions on the press forbidding the publication, for example, of material that "harms the bases of the Islamic Republic." The prohibitions are subject to much arbitrary use.
Both President Khatami and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i condemned the raid on the university dormitories. Minister of Interior Abdullah Mousavi-Lari declared that it had taken place without ministry authorization. Senior Tehran police chiefs were charged with responsibility for allowing the raid, although the head of Tehran's police department, Hedayat Lotfian, was exonerated. In mid-August 1999 a hard-hitting report by the National Security Council5 criticized the police and conservative militia groups, and President Khatami declared that "police officers and non-military personnel" were responsible for the raid, but no public criminal proceedings were instituted. The full story of who ordered the raid and which forces carried it out remain shrouded in mystery.
Pressure on the independent media intensified after the February 2000 parliamentary elections but before the new parliament assumed office. The outgoing, conservative-dominated parliament had passed a series of amendments to the Press Law holding individual writers as well as editors and publishers accountable for articles deemed to be offensive to Islam or to have incited public opinion. The amended law required applicants for new newspaper licenses to obtain prior approval from the judiciary. This closure of a previous loophole that had enabled closed newspapers to reopen under a different name within a few days has proved crucial in enabling the judiciary to suppress Iran's independent print media.
The Supreme Leader openly sanctioned the assault on the press. Speaking at Friday prayers on April 22, 2000, Ayatollah Khamene'i characterized the press as a "stronghold of Western influence" in Iran. He defended the newspaper closures by saying, "we are trying to stop the enemy from realizing his propaganda conspiracy." President Khatami was far less direct, simply hinting that conservatives were exploiting religious values to increase their grip on power:
At the same time, Khatami was careful to distance himself from some of the independent media, whose content, he warned, signified an unacceptable "shift towards secularism" in Iran.
Twelve titles (eight daily newspapers, three weekly titles and a monthly magazine6) were closed in one day, on April 23, and several more in subsequent days. In issuing the closure orders on April 23 the judiciary announced that the banned publications had consistently ignored warnings to stop publishing material that "denigrated Islam and the religious elements of the Islamic revolution." The statement from the judicial department said that the titles had "brought smiles to the faces of the enemies of the Islamic Republic and hurt the feelings of devout Muslims." Judicial officials alleged that the press was working in behalf of foreign powers.
The mass closures did not comply with the requirements of Iran's press law, which requires that formal charges be lodged against publications prior to their closure and that there be a court hearing. Nevertheless, additional closures were ordered in the following days. Those shut down included Mosharekat, the daily newspaper associated with the Islamic Iran Participation Front, a reformist political faction, and Sobh-e Imrouz, another popular daily that was published by Said Hajjarian, a senior advisor to President Khatami. A month earlier, in March, Hajjarian had been the victim of an assassination attempt, apparently planned within the security forces, that left him confined to a wheelchair. His newspaper was ordered closed, according to a judicial official, because the judicial department had received more than ninety complaints against it. Hajjarian, then still in critically injured after the attempt on his life, was in no position to respond.
The press closures were accompanied by the imprisonment of prominent editors, journalists and publishers. On April 10, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a pioneering editor of independent newspapers, was sentenced to thirty months of imprisonment for "insulting religious values." Complaints had been made against him to the Press Court by the Ministry of Information and the state broadcasting agency. More cases of imprisonment of writers and editors followed.
On April 22 investigative journalist Akbar Ganji, the editor of Fath newspaper, was summoned before the Tehran press court and after several hours of interrogation was ordered to be detained "temporarily." He had been investigating the role of senior state officials in a series of political murders that took place at the end of 1998. His articles had implicated many powerful figures, including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He was later sentenced to ten years of imprisonment to be followed by five years of internal exile in the south of Iran. On May 15, Tehran's Appeals Court reduced the sentence to six months from ten years.7
The following day, Latif Safari, publisher of the banned newspaper Neshat, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for publishing articles "offensive to Islam." The article which sparked his prosecution had questioned the use of the death penalty and the application of the Islamic principle of qisas, or retribution.
The Press Court was not the only weapon at the disposal of the conservatives in their war against the reformist press. In June, the Special Court for the Clergy,8 an extra-constitutional body created by decree of the Supreme Leader to discipline dissident clerics, ordered the closure of Bayan, a newspaper published by Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami, a former minister of the interior and senior advisor to the president. Prior to the parliamentary election campaign the Special Court for the Clergy had sentenced Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nouri to prison for five years. He had been seen as the likely reformist candidate for the position of speaker of parliament. His trial was widely reported by the independent media, and he used the occasion to advocate reform and criticize the conservative's dominance of state institutions. His defense arguments in court were collected and published in what became a best-selling book.9
Because the Special Court for the Clergy has no legal jurisdiction over the press, Hojatoleslam Mohtashami had ignored previous summonses to the court to answer charges relating to the newspaper. The Special Court announced that it ordered the closure in order to prevent further offenses by the newspaper. Among the articles that raised objections was one criticizing the judiciary for overstepping its competence and entering into the political realm.
The new parliament, convened at the end of May, sought to reverse the restrictions on the press imposed by the outgoing Majles. This included the requirement that applicants for new newspaper licenses obtain prior approval from the judiciary which had closed a previous loophole that had enabled banned newspapers to reopen days later under a new name. At the beginning of August the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamene'i, stepped in to head off a brewing confrontation between the parliament and the Council of Guardians, frustrating the reformist agenda. In a letter to the Majles dated August 6, 2000 he wrote:
On behalf of the parliament, the Speaker, Mehdi Kahroubi, agreed to cease all debate on the amendment to the press law.
Several reformist members of parliament criticized this unprecedented intervention by the Supreme Leader in parliamentary affairs, but they were drowned out by conservatives who strongly supported the Leader's action and received no evident support from President Khatami, who refrained from criticizing the intervention.
In July and August 2000 the number of newspaper closures rose to more than twenty10 and other journalists were sentenced to prison terms. They included Emadedin Baqi, member of the editorial board of Fath, who was sentenced to five-and-a-half-years of imprisonment by the Press Court for questioning the tenets of Islam and of the revolution in violation of Article 6 of the Press Law. In August, journalist Ahmad Zeidabadai was detained for failing to answer a summons to appear before the Press Court to answer charges relating to articles he had published for several independent newspapers, including Hamshahri, a newspaper published by the Tehran municipality. Other journalists for independent newspapers, including Massoud Behnoud and Ebrahim Nabavi, were also taken into custody.
As press closures and arrests of journalists continued, reformists appealed to the rule of law. Deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance for Press Affairs Shaban Shahidi stated on August 19, "It would be ideal if no publication is shut down before going to trial, and that no journalist or managing director would be arrested without an open trial in front of a jury." He also stated that reopening some of the closed newspapers "could help calm down the atmosphere in the country." President Khatami finally spoke out on the press clamp down on August 21, 2000 at a televised news conference, "The situation which has come about nowadays for our press and mass media is not satisfactory," he said.
Nevertheless, conservatives kept up their pressure. On October 3, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, in remarks at Qom's Abshar mosque, said, "if the government had done its duty, it would have hanged all these idle babblers from gallows, so that the people might utter their worst curses over them."12
Eight more publications were closed down in October. The few independent publications that remained faced constant harassment from the judicial authorities as their editors and journalists were repeatedly summoned to appear before the Press Court to answer for perceived offense in articles they published.
In December 2000 advocates of greater press freedom suffered a further blow when Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ata'ollah Mohajerani resigned. He was seen as the main guiding hand behind efforts to liberalize and increase press freedom and had been repeatedly challenged to resign by conservatives. In 1999, he had escaped an attempt to impeach him only by making an impassioned and eloquent defense of press freedom on the floor of the parliament. Mohajerani's departure from office represented for many the end of the period in which the independent print media had been able to act as the public voice of the reform movement. He had worked with diminishing success from within the system to safeguard an independent voice for the press.
Attacks on the press and on journalists continued in 2001. In January, the authorities closed the philosophical and cultural monthly Kiyan. The journal had published academic articles debating the philosophical underpinnings of the reform movement. Among the journalists most recently detained are Fariba Davoodi-Mohajer, arrested on February 18, and Mohammad Vali Beig, head of the Jame-e Rouz publishing society. On February 28, 2001, journalist Massoud Behnoud was sentenced to nineteen months of imprisonment for "spreading untruths and insulting the Islamic system." Two independent journalists, Hoda Saber and Reza Alijani, were taken into detention in March 2001 and as of late May were still being held in an unknown location. On March 18, 2001 the Press Court ordered the closure of four more independent newspapers, one daily, Douran-e Emrouz, and three monthly publications, Peyam-e Emrouz, Jamaeh Madani and Mubayyin.
5 A coordination body of senior leaders of the security forces headed by the president.
6 The dailies were: Guzrish-e Ruz, Bamdad-e No, Aftab-e Imruz, Payam-e Azadi, Fath, Arya, Asr-e Azadegan and Manateq-e Azad. The three weeklies were Payam-eHajar, Aban and Azresh. The monthly magazine was Iran-e Farda.
7 Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) website www.irna.com, May 15, 2001
8 The Special Court for the Clergy is an extra-constitutional body created by decree of Ayatollah Khomeini and subsequently ratified by Ayatollah Khamene'i. Some jurists argue that the creation of the court violates the constitution because it is not compatible with the principle of equality before the law.
9 The title, "The Hemlock of Reform," suggested that the reform movement was being poisoned by his prosecution.
10 These include: Gozaresh-e Ruz, Bamdad-e No, Aftab-e Emruz, Payam-e Azadi, Fath, Arya, Asr-e Azadegan, Azad, Payam-e hajar, Aban, Arzesh, Iran Farda, Akhbar Eqtesad, Manatq-e Azad, Mosharekat, Ava, Tavana, Ruzdaran, Bahar, Jvanan-e Qorveh and Qeseh-yi Zendigi.
12 Iran newspaper, Oct. 3, 2000.