Iran's government, protesting what it called distorted and racially biased reporting on the occupation of the U.S. Embassy and the regional unrest here, publicly threatened today to expel all American, British and West German reporters from the country.
Although Iranian authorities frequently have criticized foreign reporting since American hostages were captured nine weeks ago, today's warning coincides with an unusually harsh pattern of crackdowns, especially on the broadcast media.
Widely circulated through the officials Paris news agency, this latest attack is seen as an attempt to extort more favorable foreign press coverage of Iran as its international isolation on the hostage issue grows. At the same time, it is meant to mobilize domestic public support in a period of widespread regional unrest.
In an interview with Pars, Abol Ghassem Sadegh, chief of foreign press for the Ministry of National Guidance, said he is considering the expulsion and called on the Iranian people to send him their views as soon as possible.
"We have not observed even a single American press which may tell its people the lives of 50 hostages who are in completely good health is not equal to the destruction of a whole nation," said Sadegh.
While Iranian officials generally allow foreign correspondents a free hand, they often claim the reporters ignore the alleged crimes of the deposed shah Mohammad Reza Pahhlavi and past sufferings they say justify their holding of American hostages until the shah is returned to Iran.
Despite continual protests that undue press attention is given to the hostages, authorities have banished reporters only twice since the embassy siege -- Time magazine's bureau and an Associated Press correspondent -- charging that their stories defamed the nation's Islamic ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or stirred up minority hostility.
Recent threats and curbing of press freedom emerged after two new Khomeini stories that officials deemed unfair -- a CBS report claiming that the spiritual leader was cut off from vital information and a Time cover story naming him "Man of the Year" and saying he succeeded in "rousing hatred in nations."
These reports came at a very sensitive time for Khomeini -- he is squeezed by the threat of international economic sanctions for holding the hostages and the potential danger of civil war started by regional partisans -- and Iran's government has stepped up the attack on Western news media in response.
As a direct penalty for the CBS story that came out of Washington, the government effectively prohibited the network from making broadcasts by indefinitely suspending its rights to use state-owned facilities for television satellite hookups. A day after the suspension, Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who was reported to have made the remarks about Khomeini, denied the report. He reminded his interviewer that foreign correspondents here were abusing their privileges as guests in Iran, and had better "shape up."
On Friday, revolutionary militiamen in the Moslem holy city of Qom, serving as an internal security force organized by Khomeini, confiscated NBC videotapes of fighting between followers of Khomeini and loyalist to his rival Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, the second most influential religious leader in Iran.
Yesterday ABC News was unable to transmit a story from the northwest provincial captial of Tabriz that showed a huge rally backing Shariatmari. Although technical problems may have interrupted the transmission, there are suspicions that the film was purposely altered by Iranian technicians.
Today, NBC producer Alan Kaul received a telephone call from an assitant of the National Iranian Radio and Television chief, warning that his network's transmission privileges would be suspended, in the same fashion as CBS, if reporters failed to broadcast "the truth."
Every night the three networks here have traveled to the state-owned broadcasting facility to begin sending their stories to the TV satellite and on to American television audiences. Network staff members say their broadcasts are recorded by Iranian officials and monitored by a representative of the Islamic militants who occupy the U.S. Embassy here.
The government has also made it increasingly difficult for journalists to obtain entry visas. Although once it was possible to obtain them at the airport, the practice no longer exists since reporters received letters last week informing them they could only get viasas outside Iran.
In his interview today, foreign press chief Sadegh acknowledged that "there is a large gap between our concept of press freedom and that of Western countries," and noted that "the philsophy of . . . the Western press is based on the crucial superiority of the white race."
Maintaining that the foreign Press covers little of the Islamic revolution, Sadegh said that American journalists and their counterparts in Great Britain and West Germany who fall "under the complete influence of the United States" overly concentrate on the hostage issue.
"Their mass media have sent out reports to the world to the effect that there is complete chaos in Iran and the country is being run by a new system of dictatorship," he said. "They have asserted that Iran is a country where not only students but even its people and government are reported to trample upon all accepted international laws," he added.