The press has played a crucial role in advancing Iran’s emerging reformist agenda. Following the initial wave of attacks on the reformist press, which culminated in the closure of Jame’eh and Tous in the summer of 1998, a second crop of independent dailies appeared in late 1998. These papers exposed Intelligence Ministry agents’ involvement in the political assassinations of reformist intellectuals and activists in late 1998.
Finding themselves on the defensive, Iran’s conservatives tried to undercut the reformist press by reactivating the Press Court. Sai’id Mortazavi, the young presiding judge of the Press Court, is the nephew of Ayatollah Yazdi, until recently head of Iran’s judiciary. Mortazavi suspended five members of the Court’s jury after they objected to his rulings against the jury’s vote. The newspaper Zan (Woman) was ordered closed by the Revolutionary Court in April 1999 after publishing the former empress’ New Year’s greeting, despite the fact that the law permits only the Press Court to shut down a newspaper.
Prominent conservative political figures, among them parliamentarians, Friday prayer leaders, heads of the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards, openly accused the independent press of plotting against Islam and the revolution. The minister of culture and Islamic guidance was impeached by 31 conservative parliamentary deputies on the grounds that he had been too permissive with the press.
Conservatives continued their offensive against reformist newspapers with a barrage of lawsuits. Mortazavi began hauling newspaper directors before the Press Court where, in the absence of a functioning jury, he imposed stiff fines upon them. Several directors, including the head of the national news organization, went to jail when they could not post the staggering bail fees. They were later released when the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance posted their bail.
In June 1999, Iran’s parliament proposed new legislation that would clamp down even further on the press. Ignoring constitutional clauses about press rights and freedom, this legislation will institute a stricter degree of legal censorship. It places the press under the jurisdiction not of the Press Court, but of the Revolution Court (which judges political as well as criminal cases), and the Special Court of the Clergy. Under the new law, journalists and publishers will be required to reveal their sources. Responsibility for published material will extend beyond the publisher to include photographers, editors and journalists. The legislation will also expand the current composition of the “Commission for the Supervision of the Press” and the appointed jury of the Press Court by including representatives of conservative institutions, thus diluting reformists’ control of these key institutions.
Jurists, journalists and professors, as well as representatives of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance expressed profound concerns about the inherent dangers of the proposed restrictions. Yet despite these objections, the parliament passed the legislation on July 7, 1999. Of the 270 parliamentarians, 55 were absent and only 125 (less than half) voted in favor of the new law.
On the eve of the vote, the reformist newspaper Salam published an incendiary letter revealing that the new legislation was the brainchild of Sai’id Emami, the former Intelligence vice-minister who was a key figure in the 1998 assassinations of several intellectuals and opposition figures, and who allegedly committed suicide while in official custody.
Two days later Salam became the next victim of press repression. Accused of publishing an official secret letter, the newspaper was closed.
The next evening, Tehran University students held a demonstration in support of Salam and against the new press law. The students were attacked, and security forces and paramilitary gangs ransacked their dormitories. Central Tehran was quickly engulfed by a week of unrest and street violence.
On July 20, several conservative newspapers published a confidential, harshly worded letter to President Khatami from 24 high commanders of the Revolutionary Guards objecting to the government’s handling of the recent unrest and warning that “the Guards’ patience has its limits.” Despite the letter’s “top secret” classification, the Press Court took no action against the conservative papers comparable to its actions against Salam. In fact, the managing editor of the conservative Jomhuri-e Islami, which published the Revolutionary Guards’ letter, was appointed to the jury for the trial of the managing editor of Salam, Ayatollah Mousavi Khoeiniha. The rest of the jury, composed of prominent conservative clerics, found Salam guilty of slander and publishing state secrets. Salam was ordered shut for five years, and Khoeiniha is prevented from all press-related activity for three years.