The Ministry for National Guidance said today that a new press code restricting the movement of foreign correspondents is now in effect and that refusal to comply will result in expulsion from Iran.
Ali Behzadnia, director-general of the Foreign Press Division, informed me that I cannot report outside of Tehran without notifying the ministry in advance. He also said that I must be accompanied "in all appointments and interviews" by a "trusted" representative of the Ministry of National Guidance.
The same restriction will apply to all foreign journalists admitted to Iran, Behzadnia said, and failure to comply will result in expulsion or refusal of entry for correspondents who leave and seek to return.
Despite Behzadnia's warning, the press code has not been promulgated in a formal decree and has no basis in law, although the government is considering a wider press bill that will cover Iranian journalists.
The warning, issued a day after an expulsion order was handed to the New York Times' Tehran bureau chief, Youssef Ibrahim, appeared to reflect a policy of further tightening controls on reports following the publication of numerous articles critical of the autocratic character of Iran's revolutionary provisional government, which toppled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's monarchy early this year.
David Lamb, Los Angeles Times correspondent, was expelled on July 1 for writing what the government termed unfavorable articles.
The restrictions designed for the foreign press exceed in some respects those imposed on Iranian reporters, although the press bill on which the government is working would provide prison sentences of up to two years for insulting Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, other religious figures or government officials. Also, "insulting" articles would be reviewed by a jury dominated by government appointees.
"We must know what you are doing . . . We must know who you are talking with. How do we know this person you are talking to represents the Iranian people? How do we know what he is saying is true or made up?" Behzadnia said.
Behzadnia said I had violated Ministry of Natonal Guidance "rules" by failing to register with ministry officials in Khuzestan Province during a recent three-day trip there from Tehran to report on clashes between autonomy-seeking Arabs and members of Khomeini's Pasdarent (Revolutionary Guards).
I had been given credentials restricting interviews without an accompanying government interpreter. Also Behzania had given me sealed letters, written in Persian, to hand to National Guidance officials in Abadan and Ahwaz.
Ministry of National Guidance officials did not tell me what the letters said.
According to a translation done on return to Tehran, the letter said: "[The correspondent] intend to take a trip to Abadan and Ahwaz . . . Please instruct that a trusted representative of the Ministry of National Guidance in any of the above mentioned cities accompanies the above mentioned person in all appointments and interviews."
When advised that the presence of a government official during interviews with militant Arab separatists in Khuzestan, for example, would inhibit the sources and make reporting impossible, Behzadnia replied it was necessary to prevent "false statements" by the person being interviewed, and also to verify that the correspondent's dispatches conform to what was said in the interviews.
"We kicked out Youssef Ibrahim and we will do it again. We will look at what you write and decide whether you may enter the country again. We did not invite you. Did you receive an invitation? We can tell you to leave anytime we want," Behzadnia said.
In addition to requiring National Guidance Ministry escorts during interviews, a draft of the code had required publication of government rebuttals to offensive articles, providing for expulsion for refusal to do so.
At the moment, the Ministry of National Guidance has very little official involvement in controling the Iranian press, which has been imposing noticeable self-censorship.
The five major daily newspapers in Iran rarely criticize the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan openly or even the kometehs (committees) that dominate local affiars under the guidance of the religious establishment.
Fundementalist Moslem mobs have burned newstands and bookstores selling opposition papers and have demonstrated against the big dailies. According to Iranian journalists, these actions have inhibited the papers' editorial boards. Moreover, typographical workers loyal to Khomeini have clashed with editorial staffs, resulting in further intimidation, local journalists say.
"Journalism is even more precarious now than it was under shah and Savak (the shah's secret police). Under Savak, you knew what the groundrules were. Then, there was someone to telephone to find out if what you were writing was censorable. Now, there aren't any rules, but you have to be even more careful," said a Tehran journalist.