Assault on Independent Press in Iran Intensifies
The assault by Iranian authorities against publishers and editors associated with the country's independent press has become wider and more intense in recent days.
Kazem Shukri should be released immediately. No one should be imprisoned solely for exercising their right to free expression," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. Megally also called on Iran's leaders to end the ban of Salam, and described the effort as "a blatant attempt to gag Iran's vibrant independent press."
The conviction of Hojatoleslam Musavi-Koeiniha, a member of the clergy and a proponent of political reform and freedom of the press, follows the July 7 order by the Special Court for the Clergy shutting down the Salam following the daily's publication of a government memorandum dealing with plans to suppress those publications favoring political reform. The memorandum named several members of the parliament as linked with the planned campaign against the press. Hojatoleslam Musavi-Koeiniha was convicted on July 25 by the same Special Court on charges of defaming a government official, publishing insulting language, and misinforming the public. The ban against Salam is indefinite and remains in force.
The Special Court's banning of Salam on July 7 helped to set in motion several days of large-scale student protests in Tehran and other major cities. The other contributing factor, also on July 7, was the first passage in the parliament, known as the Majlis, of draft legislation to increase the powers of the government-controlled Press Supervisory Board. This would change its composition to make it more conservative, authorize the prosecution of writers and journalists as well as publishers and editors, and authorize prosecutions in Revolutionary Courts for alleged offenses in print. Pending final passage of this legislation, government opponents of political reform have been using the Special Court for the Clergy to attack independent journalists and suppress reformist publications, many of which are run by reform-minded clergy. The Special Court for the Clergy reports directly to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Although much of the proceedings of the one-day trial before the normally secretive court were broadcast on national television, and Hojatoleslam Musavi-Koeiniha spoke in his own defense, the procedures of the court fell far short of international standards, in particular the right to be tried before an independent and impartial judicial body. In this case, among the jury of eight appointed by the judge were several prominent anti-reform officials, including Hojatoleslam Hoseinian, director-general of the Islamic Propagation Society. Hoseinian is known to be a close associate of Saeed Emami, the former Information Ministry official who authored the memorandum published by Salam and whom the government has identified as responsible for the assassinations of at least five independent writers and political personalities in late 1998.
Kazem Shukri, editor of the center feature pages of Sobh-e Emrouz, another reformist daily, has been detained since July 20 following publication of an article which, according to the Tehran public prosecutor, distorted and insulted Islam. He has not been granted a hearing before a judge or permitted the opportunity to post bail. The paper's managing editor, Saeed Hajjarian, was also summoned and questioned but released on bail. The Press Affairs department of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance issued a statement on July 21 declaring that Shukri's detention and interrogation were "unprecedented" and in violation of the country's press law. Independent Iranian journalists have told Human Rights Watch that Shukri is being pressured to implicate others in the publication of an article which the Tehran Public Prosecutor contends was offensive to Islam. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), citing the legal office of the judiciary, reported on July 21 that writers as well as editors "can also be prosecuted for the criminal content of their articles."
The independent print media have become increasingly central in Iranian political life, and are an important forum for debate about the future direction of the Islamic Republic. In the absence of legally recognized opposition political parties, independent newspapers play a vital role in presenting alternative viewpoints and promoting greater respect for basic human rights in the country. Iranian journalists have told Human Rights Watch that two other reformist dailies, Khordad and Neshat, will also face legal proceedings designed to silence them. The apparent aim of those behind the crackdown is to suppress the independent press as much as possible in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for next February.