Iranian Media Explore Chance to Break Taboos in Rouhani Opening

Ali Aalaei, an editor at Iran’s Etemaad daily, recalls how he tried to publish a story about a dissident arrested in 2009 only to have it pulled from the paper by editors who didn’t want to alienate the censors. Last month, “we put him on our cover.”

The article featured several photographs of the anguished face of Mohsen Safaei Farahani, a reformist politician and head of Iran’s Football Federation, at his trial in 2010. Farahani was sentenced to six years in prison for challenging the results of the previous year’s presidential election, won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amid charges of fraud and nationwide protests that led to a government crackdown. “We got a good reaction” to the piece, Aalaei said. “Press restrictions have lessened.”

Aalaei is just one of the journalists taking advantage of new freedoms as Ahmadinejad’s successor, Hassan Rouhani, eases curbs at home as well as pursuing détente abroad. From the impact of sanctions to the usefulness of the decades-old revolutionary slogan “Death to America,” subjects once off-limits are being opened to debate.

During Ahmadinejad’s second term, editors were encouraged to send drafts of their newspapers to the intelligence services, who could edit or delete stories, said Saba Azarpik, a reporter who’s worked for publications including Etemaad. “Today, no one sends advance copies,” she said. “There are fewer taboos, fewer calls by the judiciary to explain our articles.”

False Dawn

How far the liberalization will go isn’t clear. Authorities have curtailed media freedoms in the past after allowing them to flourish for a period. After Mohammad Khatami’s election in 1997, dozens of new publications were launched, challenging the status quo and demanding wider freedoms.

Within a few years the gains were lost as a conservative-dominated parliament passed laws making it easier to prosecute journalists. By the time Khatami left office in 2005 more than 150 newspapers had been forced to close, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The opening under Rouhani, who took office in August, hasn’t gone as far as that era, when “the press challenged the red lines of power, areas that the leadership wasn’t comfortable with,” said Aliasghar Ramezanpoor, a former deputy culture minister under Khatami, who now lives in the U.K. Current debates are mostly limited to topics permitted by authorities, including the relationship with the U.S., he said.

‘Great Satan’

Rouhani’s telephone conversation with President Barack Obama last month was the first such contact for decades. Since then, in a break with the Ahmadinejad era, newspapers have published a string of prominent stories about opinion makers from the U.S., long dubbed the “Great Satan” in Iran’s official discourse. Bahar daily spoke to Suzanne Maloney, a Brookings Institute analyst, and other interviewees included former White House adviser Gary Sick, and Alan Eyre, the Persian-speaking spokesman at the State Department.

Donya-e-Eqtesad last week reported what it said were preliminary results of a survey Rouhani ordered to gauge public opinion after his trip to New York and contact with Obama. The Tehran-based daily said 80 percent favored better ties with the U.S., while 20 percent were opposed and wanted to retain the chant “Death to America” after Friday prayers.

It’s a change from a decade ago, when sociologist Hossein Ghazian was jailed on charges of “waging propaganda” against the Islamic republic after he published a survey saying that a majority of Iranians approved of talks with the U.S.

Jailed Bloggers

During the last four years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, there were usually between 35 and 50 Iranian journalists in prison, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The United Nations said in a report released this week that 40 journalists and 29 bloggers are serving sentences.

Rouhani campaigned on a pledge of greater liberties. Last month he said he wasn’t “scared” of an independent press, and called off lawsuits filed by Ahmadinejad against critical media. His government is also seeking more direct engagement with the public. Rouhani has a Twitter account and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has more than 500,000 fans of his Facebook page, where he posts regularly.

“The government is more open, more transparent and has a better understanding of the media,” said Reza Zandi, a Tehran-based journalist who writes for the weekly Aseman.

Zandi, who covers the energy industry, said even economic statistics used to be hard to get into print, because the government sought to downplay the impact of sanctions imposed to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Oil output has plunged to the lowest since 1990, while the currency lost more than half its dollar value in the year before Rouhani’s election.

Conservative Attacks

“Now the president himself is commenting about this,” Zandi said. “We have more leeway to look at the problems the country faces.”

Rouhani’s supporters don’t have the media to themselves, and some publications have attacked his diplomacy.

Kayhan newspaper, seen as being close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has attacked the initiative during the U.S. visit, and cited Zarif as joining the criticism. The minister accused the conservative daily of misquoting him. Earlier this month he said that stress arising from the incident had forced him to check into a hospital with back pains.

Kayhan called this week for a boycott of nuclear talks with the U.S. and other countries, because of a comment by an American diplomat that it said was insulting to Iran.

On the reformist side, journalists still have to tread carefully, said Amir Nakhaei, the political editor of Bahar, which was temporarily closed down under Ahmadinejad.

“You can now criticize more,” he said. “But there are no written rules.”

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