July 3 was yet another sad day in Iran. Less than a week after nationwide disturbances over gasoline rationing, Tehran's prosecutor general, Saeed Mortazavi, the person most responsible for the 2000 wholesale reformist and independent press closures in Iran, ordered the re-suspension of the daily Ham-mihan (Compatriot). Ham-mihan is a newspaper whose license holder is Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the former enterprising mayor of Tehran in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s responsible for the building of many public spaces (parks and cultural centers), before he was brought to trial, jailed, and stripped of his ability to be active politically for several years on mostly trumped up embezzling charges.
Ham-miham was introduced into the Iranian press scene in 2000 during the heyday of newspaper and magazine closures by the then judge Mortazavi and was immediately suspended. It took Karbashchi 7 years of court battles to lift its suspension and the paper began publishing in May with a new editorial staff, headed by Mohammad Qouchani, one of Iran’s youngest and more astute editors and political analysts. Unfortunately Mortazavi could handle only 42 issues of Ham-mihan which despite its short life had developed a large pool of readers (see pictures of the young staff of Ham-mihan on the day of closure here).
His justification for the suspension was “faults in the legal proceedings” presumably not followed in the trial that led to the lifting of the suspension. Mortazavi’s reasoning was immediately rejected publicly by the presiding judge that had lifted the suspension. And Ham-mihan’s lawyers have already turned in their legal petition to reverse the decision.
The questioning of Mortazavi’s order by a well-established judge suggests that unlike 2000 when the ban on over 100 reformist papers was implemented, today there is no consensus within the judiciary about the wisdom of such moves (and the broader security oriented environment which I have argued elsewhere is being created), particularly since almost all of the newspapers that currently publish do so with quite a bit of self-censorship based on the guidelines of “sensitive” topics that are issued by the Supreme National Security Council. These directives include bans on the analysis of nuclear-related issues as well as on some sensitive time-bound topics such as gasoline riots.
Still, unlike the prerevolutionary period, when there was a censor physically present in every newspaper, checking topics and contents line by line, contemporary journalism in Iran does not have to contend with prior censorship. Rather, it (and the license holder for the newspaper who the current press laws consider responsible for whatever goes in the paper) pays the cost when it crosses a line that someone powerful deems to be a red line. It is this dynamic and the constant testing of what is permissible that prevents Iranian journalism from dying. But it is also what makes it so hard to swallow the news, which comes almost like a kick in the stomach to the staff as well as readers, when as a good a paper as Ham-mihan is closed.
There are still other newspapers such as E'temad-e Melli, E’temad, Shargh (which like Ham-mihan recently came out of suspension), Sarmayeh, and Donya-e Eqtesad that continue to publish critical commentary about government policies and variety of issues that plague the society. But the re-suspension of Ham-mihan, along with the permanent banning of the suspended Mosharekat, the official party newspaper of the reformist Islamic Iran’s Participation Front and the changing of the head of ILNA (Iranian Labor News Agency which is affiliated the House of Labor, an organization with reformist tendencies which regularly reports on labor unrests) despite evident resistance within the judiciary and only a couple of months after several papers came out of suspension, has led to real confusion about the fate of the press.
This confusion is beginning to turn into fear with a warning by Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, about a “creeping coup”; not a “planned in a military barrack” but one that is essentially designed and organized by reformist and independent press and “moving within a framework of an action to overthrow” the system. Mimicking Saffar and often prodding him is a chorus of hardline newspapers and websites, supportive of Ahmadinejad, who are “naming names” and pointing to individual commentators or publishers who are moving “in line with the enemy.”
So if all this happening, why still wonder about the direction the press is taking in Iran? Should one take this as evidence of a real “creeping coup” by the government with the intent of complete closure of the political space and stifling of independent or critical journalism which was feared with Ahmadinejad’s presidency and the hardliners control of all levers of government? After all, the closure of the political space that came to Iran after the 1953 coup did not come overnight either.
The answer to this question, I think, is still negative. The complete closure of the public space is unlikely essentially because of the reality of intense elite competition and conflict. So long as there are rich patrons of reformist, centrist or even conservative newspapers, some sort of critical press (in the sense of being critical of the opposing camps, their policies or their proposed policies) will continue to exist. This economic aspect is usually forgotten in the analysis of the Iranian press. The starting and running of a newspaper, especially of the quality of Ham-mihan, is very expensive and can only be made possible if there are motivated and wealthy investors/sponsors or a collection of them.
To be sure, the constant closures and re-openings, only to be faced with re-closures, can be considered an attempt to demoralize precisely the sponsors/investors that make contending newspapers possible. In the past few months, a few other newspapers and magazines have had their suspension lifted. But with what has happened to Ham-mihan, their investors are bound to think twice before embarking on the major cost of re-starting a newspaper. At the same time, it is a reality of Iranian politics that even the wholesale closure of newspapers in 2000 and continued harassment and forced unemployment of hundreds of journalists have not prevented substantial criticism of the government and members of the parliament.
In fact, inside Iran, the openly discussed issue is whether the reasons for this most recent attack against the press is to be found in the desires of a nervous administration, criticized on a daily basis in the Iranian papers for incompetence and inability to fulfill economic promises, to control the amount of negative press it is receiving. The nervousness of Ahmadinejad's government is amply revealed in its lashing out even against the reportage that comes out of the state-controlled television and radio regarding people’s daily economic struggles with inflation, a long-standing problem which has worsened because of its expansionary economic policies. This is why I think that the most likely outcome of this latest attack is more of the same: journalism will continue to be a very hazardous and yet still attractive profession in Iran!