The story of Iran’s “reformist moment” of 1997-2005 can be told through the story of the Iranian press in this period. Previously, the Islamic Republic had severely restricted freedom of the press, issuing permits only to newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets that mimicked the hard line of state-owned media. With the second appointment of Mohammad Khatami as minister of culture and Islamic guidance in 1989, the restrictions loosened and the number of newspapers published in Iran rose to about 550 in 1992-1994. These new publications included bestselling Hamshahri, the first newspaper printed in color, and the independent Salam.
These newspapers helped introduce Khatami to the electorate that overwhelmingly elected him as president in 1997. Immediately, the “reformist” bloc around Khatami launched its own daily, Khordad, to promote the fortunes of their movement and the rhetoric of “democracy,” “civil society” and “dialogue of civilizations” that the professorial Khatami preferred to revolutionary bluster. In the early years of Khatami’s presidency, newspapers proliferated to more than 850, and total circulation of dailies increased from about 400,000 to more than 2 million.
From the outset, conservatives in the legislature, or Majles, and the judiciary resisted the reformist agenda — and the greater press freedom associated with it. Publications were closed, editors and writers were harassed and jailed, and licenses were revoked when officials judged that “red lines” had been crossed. Then, in 1999, a group of 20 hardline deputies rammed through several amendments to the press law allowing courts to force journalists to reveal their sources; to blacklist journalists involved in “anti-establishment” activities; and to prosecute editors, publishers and reporters for words that ostensibly incite violence or agitation against the “interests of the Islamic establishment.” The press law was broadened to cover online media as well as print and broadcast.
The people were with the reformists, who they swept into dominance of the Majles in February 2000 elections. But the backlash continued through the judiciary, security forces and right-wing paramilitaries. On April 24, 2000, 21 newspapers were shut down in one night. Said Hajjarian, the free-thinking editor of Sobh-e Emrooz, was paralyzed after being shot.
Meanwhile, the Guardian Council, an unelected clerical body vested by the constitution with the power to vet parliamentary candidates and bills for adherence to “Islamic law,” stymied the reformists’ legislative agenda. The Guardians rejected laws that would have protected civil rights, extended women’s rights and eroded the clout of unelected bodies in the political system, among many others. In August 2000, reformists introduced a bill aimed at reversing the newspaper closures and arrests of journalists. Under their bill, legal action would be taken against publishers rather than writers; the threat of jail sentences for journalists would be lifted; and the composition of the Press Supervisory Board would change to include more reformers. The bill was, however, removed from the docket by the speaker, Mehdi Karroubi, upon receiving direct instructions, in the form of a decree from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warning against “the enemies of Islam, the revolution and the Islamic system taking the press in their hands.” Consequently, the judiciary closed down yet more newspapers and jailed more journalists.
Khatami and the reformists proved either unable or unwilling to challenge the arbitrariness of the conservatives in the clerical establishment — and their moment passed. The restoration of hardline rule has largely reinstated the oppressive press environment of earlier decades.