Iran: elections free up the media
12 Jun 09

Fiery television debates, and the tactics of Ahmadinejad’s own supporters, have emboldened Iran’s newspapers, says Meir Javedanfar

The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not make life easier for Iran’s press. During his term of office, more than 14 publications were shut down at one time or another. These include notable reformist publications such as Shargh as well as the newspaper Kargozaran. The latter’s sin was that it had published a declaration by the Organisation of Strength and Unity (Sazeman Tahkim Vahdat), in which it had criticised the Israeli invasion of Gaza, but also Hamas’s use of civilian areas for military purposes, which had placed the lives of Palestinian civilians in danger. As far as the government is concerned, any condemnation of Hamas is unacceptable, as it could be interpreted as indirect support for Israel. Therefore the staff of the newspaper was fired. Once they left, their offices were attacked. Kargozoran is close to Rafsanjani’s supporters which may be another reason for its closure. Meanwhile the newspaper Sharvand Emrooz (“Today’s Citizen”) has become the latest casualty. On the day of Barack Obama’s election, it printed a full picture of the new president on its front cover. The Ahmadinejad government considered it as too pro-American, and forced its closure.

However, the upcoming Iranian elections have led to the Iranian press having one of its most open periods. This is thanks to the controversial presidential debates held on national television. The fact that politicians such as Mousavi and Karoubi have openly accused the Ahmadinejad government of acting irresponsibly in its foreign policy, as well as denouncing its management of the problem of corruption, has emboldened many in the Iranian press. When publications such as the conservative pro-Mohsen Rezai Ayande News, or the pro-Rafsanjani Shahab News hear powerful candidates such as Mehdi Karroubi asking the president on national television about what happened to $300m which went missing during his term as mayor of Tehran, they feel that this gives them enough leeway to criticise Ahmadinejad without fear of being punished.

Another important factor which has led to an impressive array of open discussions and criticism in the Iranian press of candidates, especially Ahmadinejad, is the behaviour of his supporters. A notable example was when Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the right-wing publication Keyhan, said after Benazir Bhuto’s assassination that the same could happen to Ayatollah Khatami. Many reformist politicians considered this a direct threat and declared open season on Ahmadinejad. The very fact that that the president has been such a divisive figure, who has alienated his own right-wing supporters, has emboldened many in their criticism of the government prior to the elections.

The elections have had a very positive impact on the Iranian press and its ability to exercise more freedom in its writing. Whether such openness continues after the elections depends on who is elected, and how threatened the authorities feel by the possibility of a velvet revolution.

Meir Javedanfar is the coauthor of The nuclear sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and The State of Iran