The Islamic Republic of Iran's next president must adopt measures to promote press freedom and the rule of law, starting with the unconditional release of the eight journalists and three bloggers currently in prison, Reporters Without Borders said today, two days before presidential elections in Iran.
"There will be no press freedom as long as journalists are still being systematically imprisoned," the organisation said.
During President Mohammad Khatami's eight years in office, four journalists have been killed, one has disappeared, more than 150 newspapers (not counting student newspapers) have been closed by the authorities, more than 200 journalists have been summoned, detained and questioned, and 52 of them have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from three months to 14 years.
"The current press law, passed by parliament in the spring of 2000, is exceptionally repressive and must be completely overhauled by the next president so that press offences are decriminalised and freedom of language, religion and political opinion is guaranteed without discrimination," Reporters Without Borders said.
The organisation also urged the next president to amend article 24 of the constitution, which restricts press freedom if it clashes with Islamic law. This clearly violates article 19 of the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified. Article 24 of the constitution says "publications and newspapers are free to express any opinion except if it upsets the bases of Islam and public decency." This vague wording leaves so much room for interpretation that it can be used to punish any criticism of the regime.
The press freedom organisation called for the reopening of the 100 or so newspapers that have been closed down since the spring of 2000 and an end to the filtering of news websites and online publications.
The next president should also pledge to put an end to the prevailing impunity in the many cases of journalists who have been murdered or tortured. Those responsible for the deaths of three Iranian journalists and the death of Zahra Kazemi, a photojournalist with Iranian and Canadian dual citizenship, must be brought to trial and punished.
Reporters Without Borders also called for an end to interference by the Security High Commission which, under President Khatami's supervision, tells newspapers every day what lines they must not cross.
The Middle East's biggest prison for journalists
Of the five journalists currently detained or serving prison terms, Akbar Ganji has been held the longest. He was arrested on 22 April 2000 for writing about the deaths of government opponents and intellectuals in the 1990s. Siamak Pourzand, now aged 74, was imprisoned in 2001 for "threatening national security" and for "working with foreign news media and the exiled opposition". He has been let out of prison for medical reasons.
Hossein Ghazian and Abbas Abdi have been imprisoned since 2002, the first for "spying" and the second for "receiving money from a US polling institute" and "a foreign embassy." Yosef Azizi Banitrof was arrested in April of this year after giving interviews to national and international news media.
Hoda Saber, Reza Alijani and Taghi Rahmani were arrested in 2003 on the pretext of allegedly holding secret meetings as part of the student protest movement. They were let out of prison yesterday and are awaiting confirmation that their release is definitive.
Politically and socially, the future of the press is more important than ever in Iran. The hopes raised by the election of the so-called moderate candidate, Khatami, as president in August 1997 were quickly dashed. His great achievement was supposed to be to liberalise the press. But the judicial apparatus continued to be controlled by his conservative opponents and it stepped up a crackdown on the news media that was orchestrated by the "Supreme Guide," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran did enjoy a period of relative press freedom from 1997 to 2000, when many new newspapers appeared. But after the big crackdown in the spring of 2000, the press began "playing hide-and-seek" with the authorities, sometimes managing to bring out banned newspapers under new names.
No independent daily newspaper has survived this harassment by the police and courts. The few independent magazines were also hounded out of existence by the authorities. The last one to go was the monthly Karnameh, closed down by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance on 7 April for publishing news and poems deemed "immoral."
Many subjects continue to be off-limits for the press in Iran. They include Islam, theological issues, clerics (especially the former Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his successor, Ali Khamenei), the constitution, relations with the United States, nuclear energy and sex.
A Black Spring for the press in 2000
On 17 April 2000, a conservative-dominated parliament adopted a draconian law increasing the possibilities for prosecuting journalists and banning closed newspapers from reappearing under new names. Around 100 independent and pro-reform newspapers have been closed down. The new law said "persons sentenced by revolutionary courts for threatening state security and those who spread propaganda hostile to the Islamic regime are under no circumstances allowed to work for a newspaper." This means that a journalist who has been convicted can never work again. The law also bans "all direct and indirect foreign aid to newspapers" while journalists are deterred from talking to the foreign press because they can be accused of "spying".
When the subsequent (pro-reform) parliament tried to amend these laws, it was blocked by Khamenei, the Supreme Guide.
Emergence of blogs, arrests of bloggers
The High Council for Cultural Revolution decreed that same year that all privately-owned Internet Service Providers should close down or transfer their equipment and installations to the public sector. The order was illegal, inasmuch as no legislation was ever passed to this effect, but it was implemented.
Khatami's second term as president, which began in June 2001, saw the arrival of new technologies in Iran, and the fight for free expression shifted to the Internet. Part of the population, mostly young people, turned to online newspapers and blogs to compensate for the lack of free news and information. The number of Farsi-language websites and blogs mushroomed in a few years - there are now more than 40,000 - and this is where the most intense political debates have taken place. Iran's conservatives quickly realised the need to monitor and censor these new media.
President Khatami has had an ambiguous position on the Internet. He has always said it was necessary to block access to "immoral" or "overtly secular" sites and he endorsed the filtering policies established by the regime. Iran boasts of making hundreds of thousands of sites inaccessible, not just porn sites but also independent, Farsi-language news sites.
Khatami has also failed to openly defended the 20 or so cyber-journalists and bloggers who have been imprisoned since October 2004, although several of them support the pro-reform party. But some of his aides condemned these arrests and probably played an active part in getting several of them released. Online journalist Mojtaba Lotfi and two bloggers, Mohamad Reza Nasab Abdolahi and Mojtaba Saminejad, are still currently being held.
Broadcasting under close state control
During Khatami's two terms in office, broadcasting has remained under the control of the state radio and TV broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), which has been a tool of Khamenei and the conservatives in their struggle against the reformists and Khatami. They continue to closely monitor its programmes, which have a big audience in Iranian homes. The statements of both pro-reform and conservative presidential candidates have been censored during the campaign.
Although banned since April 1994, satellite dishes that can receive international TV stations have not stopped proliferating and are now estimated to number more than a million. Dishes are often confiscated and those who install them risk being fined. The aim of the ban is to prevent access to foreign stations, especially opposition stations based in the United States.
Reporters Without Borders has been operating a prisoner sponsorship system for more than 15 years in which international news organisations are asked to adopt journalists in prison. Currently, more than 200 media support imprisoned journalists by repeatedly appealing to the authorities for their release and by reporting on their situation so that they are not forgotten.
Akbar Ganji has been adopted by Le Devoir and Nice-Matin.
Reza Alijani has been adopted by Geneve Home Information, Ottawa Citizen, 93.3 (Radio Québec), "La presse dans tous ses états" (CIBL), Mozaik Media, El Periodico de Catalunya, Aldaketa Hamasei-Cambio 16, La Voz del Occidente, REE and McGill Daily.
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