Iran Today: Part Five, Press Freedoms

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(Host) In Iran, many journalists fear that conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will further tighten restrictions on the press.

In the past there have been periodic crackdowns on newspapers and recently there have been signs that the government is moving to prevent coverage of sensitive issues.

Authorities are also increasing its efforts to limit what information Iranians can access online.

In the final part of this week’s series Iran Today, Steve Zind explains that determining where those lines are can be tricky and dangerous.

(Phone rings, receptionist answers)

(Zind) Serving as president of the Association of Iranian Journalists has been Ali Mazrui’s one steady job over the past eight years.

Mazrui’s other jobs have sometimes disappeared overnight, when one of the reformist papers he wrote for was shut down by the government.

Newspaper closings, and the arrest and detention of journalists are commonplace.

In Iran newspapers are identified by their political leanings. They’re either reformist or conservative, by degrees. In the 1990s there was a brief flowering of moderate and reformist papers, but by the end of the decade, the government had closed most of them. The papers that remain are largely conservative.

The papers were closed because they had crossed Iran’s journalistic red lines and published stories that angered the government.

There are some clear red lines that journalists know not to cross – like criticizing Supreme Leader, the unelected cleric who holds ultimate power in Iran. Ali Mazrui says other red lines have moved as reformists and conservatives vie for power.

(Mazrui) "There is a big challenge between conservatives and reformists and now the whole administration is in the hands of the conservatives and its very difficult for journalists to understand what is the red lines."

(Zind) Mazrui says one of today’s key red lines is Iran’s nuclear program. Papers know they must support the government position.

Mazrui is also a former member of the Iranian parliament. He was an advisor to moderate president Mohammad Khatami. He believes that without a free press, government can’t do a good job.

(Mazrui) "It is a very bad sign for those who are ruling because they could not understand what is wrong and what is right."

(Zind) Other red lines include questioning Iran’s Islamic form of government, or writing about the country’s human rights record.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing critical in Iran’s newspapers. There are actually plenty of articles bemoaning the level of poverty and high rate of unemployment in Iran and exhorting politicians to do more.

Mehri Rafati teaches journalism in Tehran. Rafati says the press in Iran has been punished because it’s misbehaved. She says journalists don’t offer constructive solutions, they report too much bad news and they exaggerate problems. She recites a Persian proverb about a person who sees one crow but reports seeing forty.

(Rafati speaks)
(Translator) "The journalists must recognize their own boundaries, and perform on the principles of journalism. Whenever we had an opportunity to use our freedom to write effectively and positively, we abused it. We got into a lot of trouble, to a point where the authorities had to take our freedom away."

(Zind) Rafati doesn’t favor an independent press, but she does believe journalists should have the ability to question the government.

That ability has been severely curtailed in recent years, says Hadi Ghaemi of the U.S. based group Human Rights Watch.

(Ghaemi) "Today we’ve reached a point where the judicial authorities in Tehran can pick up the phone and call editors directly and tell them tomorrow you’re not going to cover such-and-such a topic, and the editors comply because they know that if they don’t their newspaper will be shut down."

(Zind) Ghaemi says under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there’s fear press restrictions will be tightened even further.

(Ghaem) "Indeed the minister in charge of overseeing the press is a person who has a reputation for advocating suppression of newspapers and journalists and we already have a number of journalists who have been detained in the past few months."

(Zind) In most cases, the government doesn’t have to lift a finger to censor journalists. Editors and writers censor themselves to avoid trouble.

Because of the changing nature of the red lines, journalists sometimes cross them unintentionally.

(Memarian) "We don’t want to put ourselves in trouble but the nature of the red lines is broad, unclear. Sometimes we put our feet over the red lines .I was working with a newspaper . There were six journalists there. Now all of the six journalists they have tasted jail."

(Zind) That’s Iranian Journalist Omid Memarian. He was arrested in October of 2004. He spent two months in prison.

Now he attends college in the U.S.

Memarian was jailed not for what he wrote in a newspaper – but because he crossed a red line on his online web log.

Memarian’s arrest was part of a crackdown on bloggers. It was the Iranian government’s way of telling people that press restrictions extend to the Internet as well.

Persian is one of the most popular languages in the blogosphere. Memarian says the government tries with mixed success to filter Websites to prevent Iranians from reading blogs.

Bloggers try to avoid detection by writing anonymously and changing Internet service providers, but the arrest of Memarian and others has had a chilling affect.

(Memarian) "It was just for inspiring fear and it works. The bloggers, many of them they leave out some of the critical posts in their blogs."

(Zind) Memarian says while he was in prison he was held in solitary confinement, tortured, and forced to make false confessions.

He says the importance of an independent press still isn’t clear to many Iranians. His frightening experience in prison taught him two things.

(Memarian) "Life is more important than any comment And there is no comment or post that is more important than breathing free air. This is the first lesson. The second is that now in our society we just have to increase people’s consciousness. For any changes we need the people. And if you are two steps ahead of the people, the people don’t follow you. You must be one step. Just one step ahead of the people."

(Zind) Memarian’s first name – Omid – is the Persian word for "hope".

Like many Iranians, Memarian feels his country will eventually be free and prosperous. But it’s unlikely that will happen anytime soon.

Iran’s clerical elite is firmly entrenched. They’re able to control elections to maintain their power, and among Iranians there is little taste for another revolution or foreign intervention to change the government.

But Iran is not a static society.

There is a powerful undercurrent of change. It’s driven by access to the outside world through satellite television and the Internet – and by the desire of the youthful majority for a better life.

With their rich culture, wealth of natural resources and highly educated population, Iranians sense their potential, but they’re also frustrated that it remains distant and out of reach.

In the words of one young woman, "In Iran everything is possible and everything is impossible".

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

(Host) The audio engineer for "Iran Today" was Sam Sanders.

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