Press freedom will help Iran's democracy

Posted: Tuesday, April 25, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

A free press is essential to a free society. People who live in democracies know that. People who run authoritarian regimes know it even better, which is why they insist on controlling the flow of information through censorship, repression and a monopoly on news dissemination.

Iran's ruling conservative clerics have taken a major step backward by denying 70 million Iranians what they should have the right to know. Last week, supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced a number of publications for allegedly undermining Islamic and revolutionary principles. This week, Iran's judicial authorities shut down eight dailies and four magazines that had been in the forefront of pro-democracy efforts.

The publications had flourished since the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997. They provided compelling evidence of popular weariness with the stifling social and political restraints imposed by the Islamic revolution. Khatami had promised a more civil society and insisted that people have the right to say for themselves how they should be governed. Parliamentary elections two months ago underscored the public's longing for change. When the new legislature convenes next month, moderates will be in the majority for the first time since the 1979 revolution.

For some time, the hard-liners have been maneuvering to contain the threats to their power posed by this shift. Typically they justify every repressive measure, including Sunday's media crackdown and the recent arrests of troublesome journalists, by accusing their critics of insulting Islamic principles and serving as ``bases for the enemy.''

They still have powerful means to assert their will. Key institutions - the military, police and secret services, the judiciary and state television - remain in their hands.

The conservative Council of Guardians has the final say over legislation and election results. The new 490-member parliament is scheduled to be seated in little more than a month, but the council has yet to set a date for run-off elections for 65 seats. And it may move to negate voting results in Tehran, where all but one of 30 seats went to reformers. Meanwhile, the outgoing parliament continues to pass legislation to limit opportunities for reform and press freedom.

There's little doubt about who holds the commanding heights in the power struggle between reformers and reactionaries. Yet, in the late 1970s, it also seemed that power was firmly held by the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Defiant crowds of protesters shattered that illusion.

Now, by using the full power of the state to stifle dissent, deny an outlet for grievances and quash any challenges to their rule, Iran's religious hard-liners may well be inviting the same explosion of hostility and frustration that ended the long reign of their predecessor.

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