Two Iranian presidential candidates used the second debate before next week’s election to call for greater press freedom and social liberties.
All eight candidates took part in the program organized and aired by Iran’s state television, with the aim of introducing their views on society and culture. While some underlined the importance of Iran’s “Islamic culture” being supported or celebrated, others used the time allotted to criticize what they described as harmful restrictions on the population.
“Let people have more freedom, let’s not intervene so much in their lives,” said Hassan Rohani, a cleric who was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in the early 2000s. “Cultural issues must be solved through culture itself. Police should be the last resort.”
With the election looming on June 14, Rohani criticized the seizing of satellite dishes by the police, saying it was an “attack against people’s privacy.” The government had brought about a brain-drain by discouraging those studying abroad from returning home, creating in effect “a one-way road,” he said.
Iranian authorities routinely crack down on holders of satellite dishes in an attempt to prevent the reception of foreign television channels, which they say aim to undermine the Islamic Republic by propagating moral depravity in families and encouraging political unrest.
Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice-president and the other candidate backing social reforms, said the solution to perceived “cultural aggression isn’t censorship but improving the quality of local productions” to attract young Iranians’ interest. “The government must be at the service of culture, not dictate it to the people,” Aref said.
Aref also condemned restrictions on students, saying the climate in universities was “security-driven to an unprecedented level” and that they were not allowed political activities. “This view should be changed,” he said.
Iran’s government has been less tolerant of political criticism or activities since the 2009 street protests triggered by the announced re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thousands were arrested including journalists and students. Two of the candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad and alleged vote rigging are under house arrest. Top officials said the unrest had been a result of “sedition” engineered by western nations.
“We have created a policed climate,” said Rohani, a cleric, while also urging more freedom and autonomy to be given to media and non-governmental organisations.
Other candidates seen as loyalists to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate power in Iran, spoke from a different perspective.
Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator, lauded the culture of “resistance” in the country, which he said had allowed Iranians to fight back in an eight-year long Iraq-led war against his country, and safeguard its right to nuclear technology in the face of western nations. Iran must make full use of its “cultural potential” and convey abroad the “message of Iran’s Islamic revolution,” he said.
Jalili and Rohani are prominent candidates in the race. Others include Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Ali Akbar Velayati, a long-time foreign policy adviser to Khamenei. Ahmadinejad is not eligible to stand for a third consecutive term.
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