An email received from a young and incredibly smart woman reporter I know in Tehran was short of and to the point: “Zanan’s license has been revoked.” I was stunned and yet again saddened by what can be either considered outright malice or sheer stupidity of an act caused by the inability to see beyond one’s nose.
Zanan, which means women in Persian, is a monthly magazine dedicated to the reporting and analysis of women’s issues, problems and achievements. It has been in business for the past sixteen years, weathering all sorts of pressures even during the times when many other magazines and newspapers were being shut down. From the looks of things, after all these years of publication, those running Zanan had no clue that this was coming and were as stunned as I was.
Events that have taken shape since the license revocation suggests that the decision was motivated more by the personal and ideological animosity of a few individual members and not the whole Press Supervisory Board which presumably ordered the license revocation. So the question of how it all happened is an important one to ask, the answer to which raises the possibility that individuals identified as supporters of President Ahmadinejad are tying to give the impression of a fait accompli without the legal authority to do so or even without the support of other institutions and individuals in charge of supervising the press.
Those who know a bit about the publishing business in Iran understand that sustaining the publication of a privately owned magazine for sixteen years is a major feat. It is not only hard politically for a magazine that deals with sensitive social and cultural issues, facing a variety of restrictions and constant threats of shut down, it is almost impossible financially. Yet Shahla Sherkat, Zanan’s license holder and managing director, has done it by repeatedly defending her magazine in front of authorities and the courts, developing a base of loyal subscribers, and relying on women-directed advertising. She unabashedly calls Zanan her third daughter and has done anything that has to be done to keep it alive, many times even accepting the charge of being too cautious from women activists and friends of the magazine.
This has not been an easy process but it has been done with grace and acumen, making Zanan the preeminent arena in which difficult gender issues are discussed, variety of problems and solutions contemplated, and women’s achievements in Iran, individually and collectively (and there are many) celebrated. In the process, a large number of young and dedicated reporters have been trained not to approach gender issues ideologically and through empty slogans but with an eye on revealing problems social, political, and cultural actors are missing or ignoring; discussing them with and encouraging dialogue among a variety of actors, including politicians, social workers, clerics, lawyers, public intellectuals, and specialists in search of solutions, and reporting on the many women who are doing challenging and inspiring work in a variety of arenas ranging from business to law to arts to sports. It is truly impossible to pick up any of the 152 issues (the latest just came out despite the news of license revocation) of Zanan and not be proud of what a collective of dedicated staff have achieved and what the multitude of Iranian women Zanan reports on are achieving on a daily basis in Iran. But pride in what can really be called an institution because of its durability and impact – an institution born and bred by the egalitarian ideals of the 1979 revolution – does not seem to be in the mind those currently in charge of Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
So how did the license revocation come about? Strangely Sherkat, although apparently told verbally, has yet to receive a written official notice. However, the news of the revocation came on Monday January 28 in the form of a news item in Farsnews, a news agency close to Ahmadinejad’s administration. Quoting an “informed source,” the reason for revocation was said to be “threat to the psychological security of the society” and deliberate “showing of women’s situation in the Islamic Republic in a “black light.” An additional charge was identified as “the weakening of military and revolutionary institutions, including the Basij,” later revealed to be connected to a story done by Zanan on women who sign up to be martyrs.
Referring to guideline 298, apparently issued by the National Security Council in 2000, the content of which is not publicly known, and an addendum to the 2000 Press Law that specifies press obligation to follow the National Security Council’s guidelines, the unidentified source insisted on the necessity of license revocation due to repeatedly unheeded “written and verbal warnings.”
Two days later, after voices were raised questioning the legality of the license revocation and the manner it was done, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, headed by the hard-line cultural purist Hossein Saffar Harandi, felt obligated to respond in a rushed manner to justify its decision. Relying on the words of the press section of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic guidance, Farsnews reported on the release of a statement by the Press Supervisory Board which again identified Zanan as a magazine with numerous violations and many unheeded written and verbal warnings with most of the written warnings dating back to when Mohammad Khatami was president and reformists were in charge of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. In this reported but as yet fully published statement, Zanan is charged with having a “harsh feminist stance” and having the gumption to claim that many of the unequal laws in Islamic countries do not have Islamic roots or justification and hence can be rectified or changed! Both Farsnews and later Islamic Student News Agency excused themselves from publishing the whole statement and all the violations noted in the statement out of concern for the unethical content of the violations! Incredibly, the Iranian public was asked to believe that it must be protected from the shame of seeing the cited violations in an official document!
A couple of points are worth pondering here. First, according to Zanan’s lawyer, the ever-persistent Farideh Gheirat, the news of the action came out one hour after the regular Monday meeting of the Press Advisory Board, as required by law, but only in Farsnews, and not in Iran’s official news agency (IRNA)which should be and is the routine venue for government announcements. Furthermore, according to Farsnews, it was relayed by an “informed” and yet unidentified source. This to Gheirat hinted at a spontaneous decision that was taken after the Press Supervisory Board’s meeting. As far as I am concerned, it may not have been even the decision of the whole board; rather a maneuver by a member or a couple of members of the board close to Farsnews attempting to place the board in a position of a fait accompli.
Second, the informed source in the Farsnews report identified an unknown regulation passed by the National Security Council as the source of the decision. This is while legally all such regulations must be officially announced and available to the members of the press. More importantly, according to Gheirat, the news of revocation came as a total surprise because Zanan had never been given a warning on the basis of the noted (but not explained) regulation.
Finally, the 10-member Press Supervisory Board - a body consisting of the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, or his representative, representatives of the parliament and the Judiciary, a university professor selected by Ministry of Higher Education, representative of Qom religious seminary, and a representative selected by the managing directors in the press - is essentially in charge of examining application for licenses and issuing permits. It is true that since the passage of the new press law by the Fifth Parliament, this board has the power to suspend a publication temporarily for what it deems are violations of the press law but then it has to send the report of the violations to the press court. It is the press court and jury that ultimately have authority to ban a publication and revoke its license.
It is also true that the Iranian courts have repeatedly failed to abide by the law and, as in the case of Shargh Newspaper whose publication was suspended by the same Press Supervisory Court earlier this year, have refused to hear cases, hence leaving several publications in suspension. But such permanent suspensions are illegal. In any case, the recent action against Zanan goes well beyond a temporary suspension. Revoking a magazine’s license is something that is clearly outside the authority of the Press Supervisory Court.
It is on this basis that Zanan magazine has continued its work and in fact went ahead and distributed its latest issue that was about to hit the stands after the news came out. Legally, the magazine should be able to work until the press court says otherwise. Still, given the arbitrary manner press laws have been and continue to be implemented in Iran, Zanan’s publisher and others in the press consider the revocation decision to have been made by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and are involved in a process of internal lobbying as well as generating public pressure to reverse a decision that seems to have been neither based on law nor necessarily made by the whole Press Supervisory Board.
One can only hope that they are successful. If the decision is not reversed or its implementation not prevented, Zanan ultimately also has the costly and lengthy option of lodging a complaint against the Press Supervisory Board in the Administrative Justice Court, a court that deals with government violations. I assume, given the common practice, there are also several license holders offering Zanan’s staff and editors their license so that they can continue publishing Zanan under a different name. But what a shame that will be to lose the name of an institution that has done so much in bringing out gender issues and disagreements over them in a sane and constructive manner.