By Firouzeh Ramezanzadeh
Despite strong opposition from many journalists and media professionals, the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) is set to pass a new bill on the “Press and News Media Law” soon.
“There is absolutely no way to amend this new proposed bill because many of its articles grossly violate freedom of the press,” ISNA (Iranian Students News Agency) reported, quoting Kambiz Nowrouzi, a university professor and a legal expert specializing in press laws.
Mehdi Rafaei, a journalist living in Iran, told Kayhan Life: “The main problem is that the bill and the proposed amendments to it don’t provide a clear definition of what constitutes breaking the press law. In the past, authorities have accused journalists of a wide range of offenses including harming national security, agitating public opinion and disseminating lies. Currently, prosecutors, judges, and security agencies are free to interpret and execute the law as they see fit.”
“There is also no precise definition of blasphemy law as it pertains to press and news media,” Mr. Rafaei explained. “Article 43 of the bill states that the managing editor of a news organization would be fined anywhere between $2400 and $19,000 and sentenced to between one and five years imprisonment for publishing material that is deemed offensive to the Islamic principles and sacred beliefs.”
Rafaei added: “Although parts of the bill provide some protection to journalists, we have seen many instances of writers and reporters being arrested and jailed due to arbitrary interpretations of the press law. Provincial administrative councils, the Ministry of Intelligence, prosecutor offices around the country and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance have, on many occasions, interpreted the press law in ways that have suited their particular agendas.”
“Many of the amendments to the bill do reflect the international community’s recognition of the rights of a free press and journalists, but only in theory and not in practice, and that includes issues concerning workplace insurance, copyrights, plagiarism, and republication permission,” Rafaei noted. “There are also no laws protecting reporters, journalists, and writers who cover demonstrations and street protests. They are routinely arrested and jailed.”
Rafaei said: “It is not clear which government agency is responsible for speaking to reporters about political, economic and social developments in the country. Majority of the organizations are reluctant to inform the press and the media about events. Article 41 of the bill offers some degree of freedom to reporters but only in principle and not in practice. The investigative journalists who report on institutionalized corruption and the violation of human rights in the country risk imprisonment.”
Rafaei noted: “We have witnessed many instances of speech suppression. Articles 27 through 29 of the bill state that journalists must obtain permits for photographing, filming and writing about certain locations, organizations, and people. These measures are aimed at preventing journalists from exposing rampant corruption in the country.”
The political editor of a Tehran-based newspaper who wished to remain anonymous said: “The lack of press freedom makes it easy for the authorities to ban and shut down newspapers and news outlets. The current proposed bill will enable the state to stop the publication of any press or news article that it considers as offensive to religious beliefs.”
“There are many problems with this bill. Most if not all the articles in it are somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation. If made into law, it will enable a judge to stop the publication of an article,” the editor warned. “Former Tehran prosecutor general Saeed Mortazavi had famously said that he didn’t need a reason to close down a newspaper. Judge Mortazavi had even suggested that he could shut down a paper if he didn’t like the crossword puzzle printed in the daily. The new bill will give judges the same power and authority. If passed, the bill will enable those who oppose freedom of the press to stop the publication of articles, reports, commentaries, and editorials.”
“The editor concluded: ‘The nature of the problem has changed. There is no need for the Judiciary and security forces to silence journalists any longer. Many managing editors censor the works of their reporters and writers. Iranian journalists who have been living outside Iran don’t have a clue as to how things work here. Managing editors used to support their editorial team, but they don’t anymore. On the contrary, they censor their writers and reporters. Nowadays, authorities only harass reporters and journalists but not newspapers or agencies. The managing editors do the job of the security agencies by getting rid of the so-called troublemakers quietly.”
Writing in defense of the new proposed bill in daily Iran, the Deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Hossein Entezam said: “Managing editors of news organizations must know press law and the penal codes to minimize the possibility of crimes committed by journalists in the press and the media.”
Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi