Constitutional Obstacles to the Realization of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran – Part 11

As a result of the stresses endured by cultural producers of Iran over the past ten years, their professional, social, and even physical existence has been at serious risk. Fortunately, opposition to freedom of thought in general and freedom of press in particular is not a commonly held position by all members of the Iranian state. As mentioned above, after the presidential elections of 1997, President Khatami appointed a number of his colleagues with similar views to run the important ministries of Culture and Islamic Guidance and Interior. Even though these key personnel changes did not end censorship and merely modified it in practice, the censor officials moderated their methods and issued publication permits for a number of books that had been banned or simply left in limbo. The censorship section of the Ministry of Guidance continued to enforce its decisions by telling publishers or authors to remove unacceptable parts of books, but even with this limited freedom, the cultural environment of the country, especially in the areas of book and newspaper publication as well as film making and other arts, though still not ideal, experienced an improvement during the reform era.
But in response to such openings, the opponents of freedom that controlled the fifth Majles (conservative parliament) moved quickly to pass an amendment to the press laws in 2000. This draconian press law, rather than reflecting the more liberal mood of the country at the time, was intended to block it, carrying a clear message affirming despotism and authoritarianism. This new law sealed off any space for dissemination of information by the press while opening up every gate for the propagation of official views. One immediate result of the law was the closure of many newspapers and magazines. It seems that rather than allowing the press to come of age in this transitional period—through a process of trial and error—the government closed down its voice categorically.
If given the space for trial and error, various professional entities will come into being and the security of the media may gradually return. Unfortunately, the amendment to the press law put a rude stop to this process. The despotic practices against the press, which had prompted the call for freedom during the revolution of 1979, have again appeared in full via this new law with the objective of eliminating ideas that are deviant in the public sphere. A closer look at the changes shows this objective in an unequivocal way.
The most blatant of the changes is the direct attack against the survival of any given publication. Indeed the new law foresees numerous instances in which the press supervision board or a court of law is given permission to stop the publication of newspapers and magazines even before trial. This effectively undermines any possibility of press security. Of course, if an offense is committed, the law can delineate punishments, though the threat of closure without open trial goes directly against Article 168 of the constitution, which explicitly states that press offenses must be dealt with in open courts and in the presence of a jury. Furthermore, this new law allows the courts to enforce a temporary or life-long ban on authors. It also allows the press court the right to ignore the opinion of the jury and make decisions as it wishes. It also gives the Supreme National Security Council the right to enforce censorship and control over the press an unprecedented move. The logic motivating the architects of this bill was that the press law of 1985 had given too much freedom to the press, hence preventing the conservative elements from dealing with the press as they wished. The previous law, which in many cases was ignored, did not allow for the criminal prosecution of writers and publishers and did not allow for a full ban on the press. With the new law, opponents of press freedom can no longer be accused of acting against the laws of the land, even if they are blatantly acting against the constitution!
The new law not only undermines the legal but also the employment security of those active in the print media and, in this way, deprives a group of citizens who have no criminal record from such inalienable rights as choosing their own employment. For instance, Note 8 of Article 9 of the law states that “members and sympathizers of … illegal political groups … have no right to enter press activities or accept a position in the press.” Clearly, this section not only contravenes freedom of employment, but also contains a host of ambiguities. How is the membership in and sympathy for illegal groups ascertained? Can sympathy with an illegal group constitute an offense? Isn’t such an attitude toward a citizenry a type of inquisition, while in Article 23 of the constitution, it is clearly stated that “inquisition is prohibited and no one can be prosecuted for merely holding an idea”? Is it not against Article 27, which states “every person has the right to choose the employment of his/her choice provided that it is not against Islam and public interest and the rights of others” and against Article 37 which declares “innocence is the principle and no one is legally guilty until his/her guilt is proven in a court of law”?
The law contains other legal ambiguities. For instance, it states that applicants for newspaper or magazine licenses must have “practical devotion” (eltezam-e amali) to the constitution of the Islamic Republic. Now the question is how can this qualification be ascertained? What is the applicant supposed to do to prove his devotion? Does this mean the need for inquisition and prying into the minds of the people? Such ambiguities allow those who are against the freedom of the press to interpret the law and impose their will on the press and, in doing so, drive out their political opponents from the public arena.
The problems of the law do not stop in the legal realm. There are also social and political issues at hand. It is a fact that the Iranian society has made giant strides in terms of education of its public and immigration from the countryside to the cities. Iran is now a largely urban country with a highly educated population. Moreover, the population of the country is very young and constantly in search of information—both about Iran and the world at large. If domestic media does not meet this need, they will certainly turn to international channels for information. The result will be a lack of public confidence in the domestic information industry. This particular lack of confidence also feeds into a general lack of confidence and trust in the Islamic system as a whole and will serve as an incentive to break the law.
Most importantly, the amendment is open to criticism on the basis of the need for political development. Restricting access to information means impeding the process of the growth of critical thinking in society. Not only does anyone who wishes to enter the profession of writing for the press have to be selected beforehand (hence violating the rights of the citizens in choosing their job), but society is also deprived of the right to access information. Since the law leaves every individual who works in the press open to prosecution and the possibility of arrest, trial and punishment, the professional journalist has to work much like a government employee. He or she is prevented from creative, investigative and professional journalism. The press faces total restriction under this law. The question is why?
Clearly the new amendment is aimed at intensifying censorship. But what are the topics that authorities feel is an anathema that should be banned categorically from the public discourse? In a society like Iran where issues relating to women, minorities and free thinkers are among key social problems, censorship has turned their discussion into taboos. It has created red lines in dealing with many important questions; lines that no one is allowed to cross.
A case in point is feminism, which is a serious red line. People who wish to discuss the problems of women have internalized a defense system of sorts. Before they say a word, they emphasize that they are in fact “not feminists.” This position is adopted to avoid the consequences befallen women who are known to be feminists. The discussion of the legal and social condition of Iranian women inevitably involves religious and canonical questions. According to several articles of the constitution, all laws and regulations must conform to religious rules and if they do not they are invalidated. For this reason, those who are active in support of the rights of women in any area are obliged to move with extreme caution in discussing the legal status of the Iranian woman. If they cross existing boundaries, they face with charges of insulting religion, apostasy or actions against national security and must be prepared to face the severe penalties meted out to true offenders.
Similar constraints exist in the area of dealing with the question of the rights of minorities. Even the discussion of the rights of recognized religious minorities, namely Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians is dangerous enough, let alone those of minorities such as the Baha’is which, for the fear of the consequences, are not even referred to in the media. The press faces strict boundaries in discussing the problem of non-Muslim minorities and free thinkers. Those who approach the red lines almost inevitably face threat, persecution, and imprisonment.
Iran is a member of many international conventions and is obliged to recognize the equality of citizens irrespective of gender, religion, opinion, color and race. But supporting human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran is not an easy task, and often involves crossing certain “red lines.” The state holds that an “Islamic code of human rights” exists which is quite distinct from the universal declaration. In the meantime, precious few have the right to discuss human rights in full or speak about the conditions of women, minorities, and free thinkers. Any criticism entails arrest, imprisonment, and severe punishment. Even if a writer somehow escapes such a fate, the conservative press and bulletins will not fail to hurl insults. The writer will face serious threats to his or her personal dignity and even life.
Another new red line, which has recently assumed a heavier shade, is the discussion of the conditions of political and press defendants. A number of defense lawyers have been sent to prison for the mere discussion of their defendants’ cases in public. Exposure of the activities of the state in the physical elimination of free thinkers has also led to serious punishments.
Censorship, too, impedes the discussion of some of the most pressing issues of the day in our society. For this reason, the Sixth Majles, which convened in the spring of 2000 with the reformists in the majority, tried to revise the amendment to the press law in order to reduce censorship. The Majles voted to debate a new amendment, but on the day it was supposed to open the motion, a letter was sent to the deputies by the Supreme Leader of the IRI. In it, the Leader ordered the parliament to avoid revising the law.

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *