Reuters: The only thing that surprised Abdolreza Tajik when the Iranian authorities shut the pro-reform newspaper where he worked was that it had survived so long since last year’s election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By Edmund Blair
TEHRAN (Reuters) – The only thing that surprised Abdolreza Tajik when the Iranian authorities shut the pro-reform newspaper where he worked was that it had survived so long since last year’s election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But when the order to close Sharq came in September it confirmed his suspicions that the government of Ahmadinejad, who rails against the West and vows a return to Islamic revolutionary values, does not appreciate dissenting voices.
“At least some people inside the government believe that there should be no voice except their own voice,” Tajik, Sharq’s political editor, told Reuters in the empty offices that once buzzed with activity of the country’s leading reformist paper.
Critics say the closure is part of a gradual squeeze on political opponents and a clampdown on cultural activities the authorities see as encouraging “corrupt” Western values.
They say critical professors in universities have been pushed out, student activists feel threatened and opposition journalists face increasing pressure to conform.
Sharq had a tiny circulation of just 130,000 in a country of about 70 million people but critics say it may have been targeted because it was gaining popularity.
“They were afraid of Sharq. Sharq had become a very popular newspaper. It was attracting a lot of young people, students and others,” said a senior Iranian official, who asked not to be identified because his comments could cause him problems.
The government dismisses such charges, saying it welcomes criticism from the press and others. The press supervisory board said it closed Sharq for failing to change a managing director accused of publishing blasphemy and insulting officials.
Sharq journalists deny such accusations and say they want to challenge the ruling. But they say they face an uphill fight.
The government has called on the judiciary to clamp down on newspapers which tell “lies” and journalists say they face increasing pressure from the authorities, particularly when reporting issues like Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West.
Conservatives say the government is concerned about national security. Reformists see it as gagging.
Conservative-leaning newspapers dominate the press and the state controls Iran’s broadcast media. Iranians seeking more diverse views turn to satellite TV, but police launched a drive in July to enforce a ban on satellite dishes.
“They (the government) are afraid of a powerful reformist media. They don’t want to see a repetition of what happened in the past,” the Iranian official said.
The press was a battleground for reformists when President Mohammad Khatami tried to push through his agenda of change during eight years in office which ended in 2005.
Conservatives, who held most reins of power at the time, stamped on his efforts, shutting down reformist newspapers en masse, sometimes days after they started. Many reopened under new names, which one report suggested Sharq might try to do.
There has been no sweeping clampdown since Ahmadinejad took office and a handful of reformist dailies still publish.
“The government welcomes criticism and assessment of its work by the media,” government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham said in August. “It … opposes censorship, self-censorship and government pressure on the media.”
But critics say closing down such a prominent journal as Sharq is an ominous sign before the December vote to city councils and the Assembly of Experts, a powerful clerical body which reformists fear sympathizers of Ahmadinejad want to pack.
Some say Sharq was linked — despite the management’s denials — to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential cleric who this month signed up to run for the assembly. He lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race.
Political analyst Mahmoud Alinejad said the government may have moved against Sharq while support for reformists was still at a low ebb because “whatever they do at this stage doesn’t invoke any strong protest.”
Student activists, once the vanguard of the reform movement, have been keeping a low profile, which some analysts attribute to disenchantment with reformists who failed to deliver on their promises when they controlled parliament and the presidency.
But students also say they are being cowed into silence.
“They pressure active students, even those who have been active for student welfare demands, by summoning them to the disciplinary committee,” said one student activist, who asked not to be named, adding that many student bodies had been shut.
Some critical university professors have also been pushed into early retirement, critics say. Ahmadinejad has urged students to denounce liberal professors who taint the Islamic Republic with secularism.
Even so, some say worries about a clampdown are exaggerated.
“We have many more secular and liberal people here to be fired than the ones who were retired,” said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political science professor at Tehran University.
But many see a concerted drive to scrub out anything that smacks of Western influence. One European diplomat said even his country’s student exchange scheme has suffered. His nationals visited Iran but no Iranians were sent back in return, which he attributed to fears of what they might learn abroad.