During his brief tenure as vice minister of Islamic guidance and culture, Ahmad Bourghani oversaw the issuance of hundreds of press permits and the flowering of an independent Iranian press for the first time since 1979. Bourghani, chosen by Khatami to spearhead the liberalization of the public sphere, resigned in February 1999, frustrated with the intransigence of the Commission for the Supervision of the Press (a joint committee comprised of representatives of the three branches of government and the press that reviews press application and thus determines who can and cannot publish), and dismayed by lukewarm support from his own minister, Ayatollah Mohajerani, who narrowly survived a parliamentary impeachment motion in May for “cultural laxity.” Bourghani entered journalism after the victory of the 1979 revolution. During the war with Iraq (1981-1988) he oversaw the War Information Press, and was chief news manager for the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). From 1990-1993 he was posted in New York as the UN correspondent for IRNA. Upon returning, he helped establish the short-lived weeklies Bahar, Barharan and Envoy. In 1998 he joined Khatami’s election campaign, serving for 18 months as vice-minister in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. This interview was conducted on April 7, 1999 and translated from Persian by Kaveh Ehsani.
What was the effect of your stay in New York, both personally and politically?
It changed my view of the United States, as well as my approach to journalism. After the revolution and during the war, we tended to see everything in black and white, telling our people that the consequence of the war will be either total victory or total defeat. I certainly did not have a favorable opinion of the US, but in life you cohabit even with your enemies. The vitality, efficiency, openness and availability of the US media impressed me. I could see that the New York Times was not just a newspaper, but an information corporation. Their professional abilities were truly impressive. I realized we could compete with the best of them. The Reuters office was adjacent to ours, and their bureau head let me know whenever we managed to beat them, both in quality of coverage as well as timing.
But the media also interpret events. You choose what to cover, what aspects to emphasize.
True, you can watch CNN coverage of an event and analyze it as the interpretation of a particular corporate or media faction. If you are involved in disseminating news, you may end up having the same interpretation as CNN. But not all CNN coverage is one-dimensional or ideologically slanted.
How do you now assess that period after the revolution, when most secular and independent newspapers were forcibly closed?
From the beginning of the revolution to the start of the war [1979-1980], the press was unbound. There were no regulations — and no recourse to defend yourself if someone libeled you. The extremism of the left and mojahedin poisoned the air; it was clearly heading towards a clampdown. Exposés [of individuals or political groups] were the name of the game. Had there been a successful attempt to regulate the press according to a legal framework, things could have been different. Many people suffered the loss of their reputation without being able to hold anyone accountable. The press law was not enforceable; it was anarchic. We may have liked it, being young and adventurous, but it was a bitter period of conflict.
The [outbreak of] war ended this period, as the press adapted itself to the needs of the war effort. We had no more than five or six newspapers, all of which were submissive and docile. Yet even during the war some really interesting work was done on topics such as liberty and political development.
What did you anticipate would happen with the end of the war, the death of the Imam and the advent of Rafsanjani’s presidency?
In 1991 the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry set up an office of vice minister for media and we began to see a relative opening up of the press. Specialist journals appeared, such as Film, as well as tabloids and publications for young people. We also witnessed the expansion of book publishing, but in the end the conservatives could not tolerate Khatami, who was then minister of culture. It was mainly because of the book and press opening that he was forced out and replaced by others who were not sympathetic to a more open press. This culminated in Mostafa Mirsalim’s stint as minister, when space for the press completely closed up.
The press was never intended to be the spearhead for Khatami’s political reforms, but it was soon apparent that it offered the fastest path to political liberalization. Television and radio were completely monopolized by Khatami’s opponents: The head of the electronic media is appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamene’i. Initially Khatami encouraged political parties. Some expected the Freedom Movement [the religious wing of the generally secular-leftist National Front] to obtain a permit for political activity. But even the Kargozaran-e Sazandegui party [the Executives of Construction, Rafsanjani allies and technocrats led by Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the recently jailed mayor of Tehran], encountered great difficulty in obtaining a permit from the Political Parties Supervision Committee. The committee, strongly tilted towards the conservatives, presents a formidable legal barrier to the establishment of reformist political parties.
How would you characterize your term as vice minister?
The first year was very dynamic and transparent. We issued permits rapidly and in large numbers, and we provided protection to the press, which also needed considerable infrastructural support. I did not remain long enough to see this come to fruition, but we accomplished a lot. We tried to foster diversity and pluralism by responding quickly to applicants for press permits from diverse trends.
Prior to this, the elite did not consider the press a serious medium. Now the tone and content of papers is more serious. Many political elites realized that parties have a long way to go before being established. We have, in fact, only one real political party, the Islamic Alliance Society, which emerged from the bazaar and represents its interests. The other parties don’t really represent distinct social classes or groups. In the press, the workers have a newspaper, Kar-o Karegar (Labor and the Laborer) that represents and defends working class interests.
This is the era of daily papers. The rapidity of developments is such that not even weeklies can keep up with events. Fortunately, financing a newspaper here is not as difficult as in the West. Advertisements are not as crucial. Official newspapers have assets, such as printing presses. The pro-Khatami, privately owned and independent dailies survive on their circulation, while the papers owned by official centers of power enjoy state support. The main obstacle to an independent Iranian press has not been financial, but legal and political. One most obtain a permit from the Commission for the Supervision of the Media, which is composed of one representative each from the Ministry of Culture, the Judiciary, the Parliament, the press and the university community, and is chaired by the representative of the Ministry of Culture — myself at that time. After a year, Mohajerani decided to replace me and to chair the commission himself. Since then, permits have been issued slowly and more cautiously.
Actually, during the last three months of Rafsanjani’s presidency, with Mirsalim as minister of culture, as many permits were issued as during the first year of our tenure! The conservatives realized they’d lose the election, and that the press would be one of the main areas of post-election activity, so they began giving permits to their supporters, although most of these were never used and expired after one year.
How much credence do you give to the conservative critique of your media policy?
It really puzzles me. What we have is much better than watching semi-pornographic videos from Turkey, or the contraband trash that is distributed through underground channels. There are an estimated three to five million VCRs in this country, which means that each week at least nine million people watch a video. Three quarters of these videos are black market. These are not necessarily bad videos, just outside legal control and supervision. I do not have a censorial approach to these things. Society itself should know what is being circulated in its midst, so it can adjust its attitudes and behavior. If I know, upon entering a video store, that there is a children’s section, another section for adults and a special section for pornographic films, then when my son goes to rent a film from that store I am aware of the presence of pornographic films and I can adjust my decision accordingly. The different branches of the state act in a similar fashion. They want to improve their citizens’ lives. But they cannot do this without appropriate information.
We have given people a press that is transparent and openly available to everyone. People can analyze and criticize this press and its contents. I continually tell parliamentary deputies that we are filling the public’s unregulated leisure time constructively. This is undoubtedly better than the trash available on satellite channels or black market videos. What I am doing is actually more in tune with the moral concerns of the Islamic Republic!
The conservatives began blaming the press for their loss of power. The press is revealing the changing political balance; different currents exist in society, and the press promotes or criticizes them. The press may exaggerate or demean, but this is its prerogative. Competing coverage offers the public a balanced view. For example, Karbaschi, the mayor of Tehran, is arrested. Naturally, his arrest attracts widespread attention. The press responds to this demand. Conservatives then say the media is causing disorder. This is nonsense! The judiciary has undertaken an action, and the media is reacting. The conservative onslaught against the media did exactly what they had accused the press of doing — blowing little events out of proportion.
How does the Press Court fit into this dynamic?
The Press Court  began acting in a blatantly illegal manner, closing publications against the explicit judgment of its own jury! This backfired. Last year Jame’eh caused a sensation with its aggressively reformist tone. Yet after it was banned, several similar papers appeared!
The trend of cultural and political development in Iran is irreversible. A smart person would help this trend proceed in the least harmful manner. Information technology has expanded to such an extent that it is impossible to stop it. During the Shah’s reign you needed a special security permit to own a photocopy machine. Our kids will laugh at us 30 years from now for issuing permits for newspapers. My consolation is that they will laugh harder at those who wanted to prohibit the permits!
The conservatives have misjudged. This is a period of expanding political freedoms and a vigorous independent press, accompanied by adherence to the rule of law. This trend will not be reversed with the comings and goings of individual politicians. No doubt we will continue to have a troubled and oil-dependent economy, but this will not prevent our political development. In fact, we have no option but to develop politically because of our economic hardships!
The press is playing the role of a public watchdog, helping reduce corruption and mismanagement. Banks are functioning a lot more responsibly due to fear of media exposure. There may be interruptions, but the trend is irreversible. Every attempt at ideological molding of individuals has been defeated. I am not an expert in Islam, but Islam does not try to create a homogenized human being. It asks for one thing only: To worship God. That is all.
Are the problems we are witnessing — attacks on the independent press by conservatives in the legislative and judicial branches — caused by faulty press laws or misapplication of the law?
Paradoxically, our press laws are fairly good, compared to say, the laws regulating the cinema. But there is no such thing as journalistic immunity. Publishers have only responsibilities, not rights. In the US, for example, you do not have to reveal your sources. Our legal system weighs in favor of the plaintiff, rather than the accused. Having said this, I think our press laws are appropriate for now. The only threat to the further development of the press is the law regulating the issuance of permits. There are only four countries in Asia that require a permit to publish a paper or magazine, and Iran is one of them. Everywhere else you simply register your publication. Our system can obstruct the development of the press, since it can be subject to the political preferences of the ruling factions.