In Iran, the Staying Power of the Press
New Paper Pegs Survival to Discretion
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 3, 2004; Page A01
TEHRAN -- The time does not appear auspicious for launching a newspaper in Iran.
In the country that the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders calls "the Middle East's largest prison for journalists," those dailies still available on newsstands brim with courtroom accounts of less fortunate publications, their editors summoned to the dock by the religious government that has closed more than 100 papers in the past four years.
At last month's meeting of the official press committee, a government monitoring board that includes representatives of Iran's news media and of its ruling clerics, a senior mullah named Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei threw two sugar bowls at an editor, then came around the table and bit him on the shoulder -- drawing blood, said the editor, Isa Saharkhiz, who pulled down his shirt to show the scab.
"There's no security for me," Saharkhiz said, "and therefore none for the press."
So why is Emadeddin Baghi, a veteran of three years in prison and seven shuttered papers, beaming as he goes about the business of launching an eighth publication?
Jumhuriyat, coming Sunday to newsstands up and down the sycamore-lined streets of Tehran, illustrates both the core resilience and the discreet new trajectory of the progressive impulse in Iran, where politics is not what it used to be.
"After all this repression, it would be a sign of hope to people," said Baghi, from a corner of a crowded table in a room swarming with young reporters. "We are still alive. We are still trying.
"We want to show that such a thing is still possible here."
The newspaper is arriving just when the reform movement in Iran is giving every appearance of being on the run, if not actually finished.
Earlier this year, the religious hard-liners who control Iran's judiciary and appointive offices used their unchecked powers to take over the country's elected parliament, disqualifying more than 2,000 mostly reformist candidates before February's elections. In the process, the right wing also completed the marginalization of the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, who proved powerless to prevent the disqualifications.
The struggle between reformists and hard-liners, which had long preoccupied Iran's political class, took a back seat to the debate over which wing of the ascendant right would consolidate political clout -- "pragmatic" conservatives or hard-liners such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
"If I want to be honest and talk about the future, it's somewhat confusing to me as well," said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a jocular cleric who, as one of Khatami's vice presidents, stands to be out of a job next year. But the frown that clouded his amiable features lasted only a moment.
"In the social context," he added, "the future is very bright."
As it happens, the social context is where Jumhuriyat aims to thrive. Baghi trained as a sociologist, and his newspaper is founded on the widely held belief that most Iranians stopped caring about politics years ago, shortly after Khatami's 2001 reelection failed to produce either economic revival or changes in the way Iran is ruled. By the time the conservatives pushed aside the reformers, people had already stopped paying attention to a process that had little effect on their lives.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company