Omid Memarian

Sunday, July 15, 2007

If we are coup d’etat agents, arrest us!

Omid Memarian- Interviewing Mashallah Shamsolvaezin is an easy, yet difficult task. It is easy because he is one of the most outspoken Iranian journalists. It is difficult because as a remnant of my experience working in Iranian newspapers, I continually find myself asking him: “Should I write that Mr. Shams?” And he replies: “Yes, Sir, don’t exclude anything!” In an interview with Rooz, Editor of Jameeh, Neshat, Toos, and Asre Azadegan Newspapers talks of newspaper bans, Ministry of Guidance’s calling journalists “coup d’etat agents,” hard days ahead of the country, Government’s failures, and a shifting of fear center from the Judiciary to the Executive Branch.
Confrontations with newspapers and journalists are not new developments, but the Government’s direct involvement in the recent harassments is a bit unexpected. Is it a true statement that the Government has prepared itself for a serious confrontation with critical newspapers?

Yes. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s advisors have announced that a committee has been formed to confront the newspapers. Mr. Saffar Harandi, Minister of Guidance has also said that there is a “creeping coup d’etat by newspapers,” which I believe includes him as a “coup d’etat agent” as well, since he himself was Editor of Kayhan Newspaper until recently. If there is a coup d’etat, then he is the head of coup d’etat agents. Minister of Guidance and Islamic Culture is responsible for newspapers and journalists. If they are coup d’etat agents, so is he. I don’t think Mr. Saffar Harandi is yet at a place where he knows what he is talking about. He just dishes out accusations this way and that.

Why, in spite of routine pressures, Mr. Harandi is now using literature from which Ministers usually refrain?

I believe the Ahmadinejad government has reached a complete impasse in the media domain. On one hand it is facing deep troughs in the political realm, facing serious criticism, and on the other hand it blames the reformists, its true competitors, for their approach to internal and international issues. Using an accusatory tone against the newspapers, they believe they are controlling the crisis. In fact when you review them carefully, you will see that they have no other choice. They must accuse the newspapers, and this is not a new precedence worthy of your surprise! During the contemporary Iranian history, whenever dictator governments have been unable to accomplish their missions, somehow they have blamed their failure on outside sources, either political parties—when political parties were active—or the newspapers. These threats are precursors to subsequent confrontations.

But over the past few months, there were some positive signs pointing to an improvement of the situation with newspapers, signs such as issuing Shargh and Ham Mihan newspapers with permission to resume publication, as well as removing the ban on some other periodicals…what is happening now?

Since a month ago, seeing the limited hope caused by re-publication permits of certain newspapers and resumption of their activities, we thought there might be some wise people in the Cabinet who actually believe that it is better to allow an increase in the variety of, albeit controlled, local newspapers vis a vis the foreign and international media. However, the hurried actions to ban Ham Mihan Newspaper, revocation of Mosharekat Newspaper’s permit, banning Nedaye Mardome Kordestan Weekly, and creating roadblocks for ILNA News Agency’s activities, all show us that the team which regards media with a security view has been reactivated and in the future we will be seeing similar actions.

What signs convince you that such a team exists and is active?

There are two signs. One is internal issues; specifically as we near the next elections we see preparations to prevent activities of prevalent social forces and factions. The other is international pressures pushing them that way. They believe that over the coming months, Iran will face pressures, threats, and offensives. Thus they are interested in controlling and manipulating information generation streams so that they may be able to deal with it at both internal and international levels. This is the only political interpretation I can make about these actions.

Who is managing this confrontation with the press? The Judiciary? The Cabinet? Unidentified organizations?

I don’t see much difference. The team previously residing in the Judiciary in very secretive ways is now running the Ministry of Guidance. We haven’t forgotten! Right now they are doing all that in the Executive branch and feel no need for the Judiciary anymore. That is why when you look at the reasons Ham Mihan Newspaper was banned, you will notice there is no legal basis for the ban. A court was convened, a sentence was issued, and the trial has adjourned. There is no base for the subsequent actions. This team sends a clear message to the public that it is capable of imposing its opinions above and beyond the law. This is a clear message. Saeed Mortazavi and those like him who announce these rulings, are the ones signing these verdicts. The regime is responsible for these actions. Mr. Karbaschi said it nicely, that “a will above the court caused Ham Mihan’s shut-down.”

Over the past several months, Mr. Shahroodi has repeatedly discussed implementation of laws and policies pertaining to Citizen’s Rights. Mr. Shahroodi’s statements, however, do not match the actions of other parts of the Judiciary. Which one should we believe?

The policies Ahmadinejad’s government is following with regards to media handling are the same ones Head of the Judiciary opposes; at least he opposes them in their current shape. When reformists were in charge, the regime had appointed the Judiciary to confront the newspapers, and as the Judiciary and its dedicated judges were not willing to cooperate in issuing such verdicts, Saeed Mortazavi was put in the Judiciary to facilitate those verdicts. The only difference now is that the same team has come to reside within the Executive Branch. Therefore the Executive Branch feels that they can also perform all that was previously expected of the Judiciary, and the Judiciary is slowly letting go of their control over the newspaper cases. The Executive Branch now independently takes action to shut down, limit, and warn the newspapers. The difference is that in the past journalists would seek refuge from the Judiciary to the Executive Branch, and now they seek refuge from the Executive to the Judiciary Branch! Note that in both instances neither the Judiciary nor the Executive Branch had direct and comprehensive control over the cases. There is another power above both of them and everyone knows what the source of that power is.

What is the source of this power?

As I mentioned, everyone knows.

Do you believe Mr. Saffar Harandi’s statements can be pursued in a court of law?

Yes, I believe he has to be tried for the big accusations and slanders he has made against the newspapers. Journalists have been labeled as “coup d’etat agents.” Why does Saffar Harandi say that? The reason is what we have always pointed out and that is the fact that a cultural agent can become a security agent or an intelligence source, but you cannot turn an intelligence agent into a cultural agent. What has happened in the case of Mr. Saffar Harandi is the second. When intelligence agents become heads of culture, you can see what happens and this is alarming.

Over the past years, in many cases several authorities or newspapers with strong security backing have made false accusations which were never proven. However, the same statements have endangered the lives of many journalists, some of whom have had very sad endings. Nobody asks what proof there is of such accusations. How can the activities of such sources be limited or controlled through the help of “wiser” authorities?

I believe that as security layers intertwine with cultural layers, it will not be possible to raise a legal claim against the unprecedented statements of the Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister. However, syndicates and support organizations can react—reactions which are not limited to issuing statements. Reactive measures can be increased and strengthened. One of these reactive measures can be sit-ins in the Journalists’ Home or the Headquarters of the Iranian Journalists Syndicate to protest the insults made by Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance. This sit-in can take place in front of the Ministry of Guidance and journalists can ask this Minister what he is talking about. Well, if we are coup d’etat agents, arrest us! They arrest women for their poor hejab, yet they let coup d’etat agents to walk the streets? Either he is right and we must be arrested, or he isn’t and he is the one who needs to be arrested. We demand for this to take place at once.

The Government has mobilized all its resources to confront the media and to restrict information channels. Is something important about to happen? Has the Government reached a decision about which the people are unaware, and is all this in preparation for that important event? Or are we to accept these events as routine happenings in the current government?

Even if something is about to happen, people don’t know anything about it. Public opinion needs to be informed of the serious international pressures the Government faces. The government has detailed information of certain governments’ preparations for taking steps towards further sanctions against Iran. It is also possible that while those sanctions are being decided, air strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations might take place, facing the Government with new pressures, forcing it to resist. This is why information channels need to be controlled in these areas. What the Government is after is that any warnings pertaining to impending crises and their related problems must not be announced to Iranian public in a way that would cause panic. Our question to the regime is whether these actions won’t create more concern among the public? When newspapers are closed and publications are banned, and you simultaneously confront women and families over poor Islamic hejab, arrest academics attending conferences and international conventions on espionage charges, avoid travel of journalists to attend international conferences, destroy your relationship with many countries in the Middle East and particularly the Persian Gulf Region, exacerbate existing crises, and replace existing relationships with revived relationships with a country such as Venezuela which is continents away from Iran, we see all the signs of crisis heading our way. In order to silence warnings pertaining to crisis caused by decisions made by the Government, they are implementing preventive measures the most important of which is to shut down information channels and all sources of knowledge and information.

Do you think other newspapers might be facing close downs over the coming days, especially in light of what certain authorities have stated regarding “crossing red lines” by some newspapers?

Regardless of these examples, you can observe that even non-print media such as certain radio stations which had started airing interesting programs have faced changes in their management team, and creative journalists active in other media have also been banned from activity. All these are signs pointing to the Government’s determination on this thinking, and we will have to prepare ourselves for even worse events.

What do you predict to be the end point in the confrontations with newspapers?

There is no “end” in confrontations with newspapers. As I have said before, whoever attempts to topple the “fourth pillar of democracy” which is the press, will be toppled with it. Look at the contemporary Iranian history-- those who have attempted to eliminate the press, have suffered. This is completely clear. Journalists might suffer temporarily, but they will emerge as victors.


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