Closed down 10 days ago as one of the military government's first acts, Iran's briefly free press is pondering the price of resuming publication on terms still unpalatable to many editorial and printing staffers.
"After more than two decades of government repression - and only a month of free expression - we're unwilling to go back to the bad old subservient ways," said one staffer, who like other journalists, insisted on anonymity because of the possibility of arrest.
Owners of the two main publishing houses, Kayhan and Ettelaat, are trying doggedly to persuade staffers to return to work and warning that otherwise they may not be able to meet the payroll.
It is a tradition in Iran that workers are paid if they show up everyday even though they are on strike and do no work.
Staff members' efforts earlier won the release of imprisoned colleagues. This time their price for returning to work is that the military government honor a charter guaranteeing freedom of the press.
In a short-lived victory for press freedom last month, then prime minister Jaafar Sharis-Emami granted the charter despite martial law. It was the first meaningful blow for a free press in contemporary Iranian history.
The present no-nonsense military government of Gen. Gholam Reza Azhari has told the journalists' union that no formal censors will be present in newsrooms, but issues that endanger national security may be seized under martial law rule.
The publishers feel especially vulnerable economically now that once flourishing Iranian and foreign advertising has largely dried up because of the political crisis.
Now that the drama of the pre-dawn seizure of the Nov. 6 papers has passed, once again the Iranian press is threatened by the self-censorship it faced for so many years.
Gen. Abol-Hassan Saadatmand, the new information minister, recently called in executives of the Kayhan and Ettelaat newspapers.It is rumored that he threatened them with nationalization unless they resumed publication promptly. What actually transpired has not been made public.
Newspaper staffers reported that the opposition - apparently either Paris-based Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomini, who leads the country's 32 million shiite Moslems or the National Front - made it know that funds were available to staffers to keep the strike going. But a Kayhan management official said. "We will not take any money except from sales or advertising."
Meanwhile, some staffers privately conceded that they did not really know how best to use their brief freedom. Some admit that the military government was not unreasonable in demanding "more balanced reporting."
The journalists cite factors as varied as ineffective senior editors, a failure to check facts and militant young desk editors given to inflammatory headline writing.The intense competition encouraged sensationalism as the main papers fought circulation wars to satisfy a public unused to press freedom.
Despite martial law in September, the press had devoted most of its space to the opposition with special attention paid to every statement by Kmomeini.
"We invited other views but no one came to the suspect of the government," an editor said. "We were begging ministers and other government supporters for interviews, but they all refused."
But a veteran journalist, recalling interference of yore said. "Things cannot get that bad again. The political and intellectual conditions have changed so drastically in the past year."
Despite the present stalemate, the military government is generally thought to want the newspapers to appear again. As one diplomat noted, "the opposition has learned that rumor is the maximum psychological weapon."
The government-controlled national radio and television, which also enjoyed a brief Indian summer of freedom of expression, is now firmly back under what its employes announced in a handbill as "the fist of totalitarian authority."
Symptomatic of the military government's get-tough is the jamming of the BBC's Persian-language broadcasts which many Iranians have long regarded as their main impartial news source.
Jamming the normal BBC wave-lengths has been the voice of someone counting from one to five and backwards.
BBC resident correspondent Andrew Whitley has received a formal warning threating him with expulsion. His reporting has enraged various governments for months and at one point the British Embassy was threatened with a trade boycott of British firms as a consequence.