Iran thought to ban reporting on opposition leaders

A letter from the Iranian government appearing on opposition web sites orders the media to refrain from reporting on two defeated presidential candidates, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as former President Mohammad Khatami. -db

The New York Times
August 25, 2010
By William Yong and Robert F. Worth

TEHRAN — In a further clampdown on Iran’s cowed political opposition, the authorities have issued a ban on any news relating to the leaders of the protest movement that arose after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year, opposition Web sites reported.

A leaked copy of a letter that has appeared on opposition Web sites orders the editors of all domestic newspapers and news agencies to refrain from publishing the names, photographs and statements of two defeated presidential candidates, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as former President Mohammad Khatami, because of the “probable negative influence” this would have on the public mind. Officials from the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance did not respond to requests for comment on the letter’s authenticity.

If genuine, the letter would be the first public confirmation of such a ban, though the opposition has been largely absent from the Iranian news media for months. The government has shut down at least 10 newspapers and magazines since the presidential election in June 2009, including major reformist dailies and magazines that have been critical of the government. The publications have been accused of infractions like “printing news contrary to reality,” “disturbing public opinion” and “casting doubt on the elections.”

The presidential election led to the worst unrest in Iran since the 1979 revolution, but the protest movement has been silent for months, thanks in part to arrests, mass trials and intimidation. With their reformist foes quiet, conservative factions have been increasingly fighting among themselves; Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, last week urged supporters and critics of Mr. Ahmadinejad to avoid public feuding. The document about the media ban, which is stamped “urgent” and “top secret,” opens with a reminder that the “fundamental responsibility” of the media should be to “create an atmosphere of calm in society” and that the decision to formally prohibit mention of the opposition leaders was prompted by the concerns of “security officials.”

“They have already made it clear indirectly that news about these figures is banned,” said Iraj Jamshidi, a veteran journalist and the editor of the recently banned newspaper Asia. “Under the current climate, no one dares to interview Mr. Moussavi or Mr. Karroubi. They want them to be forgotten.”

In addition to repressing the protest movement, the Iranian authorities have taken some conciliatory measures aimed at calming public anger. This week, a high-profile prosecutor who is thought to have been the architect of the mass trials that followed last summer’s protests was identified by victims’ families as one of three judges who had been suspended from duty.

The prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, has been known for many years as an instrument of hard-line conservatives in the persecution of journalists and political dissenters. He and two subordinates were suspended this week in connection with the arrests of dozens of students who were sent to the notorious Kahrizak detention center last summer, according to lawyers for victims’ families. Three young men held at Kahrizak were tortured and killed, including the son of a prominent conservative.

In 2003, Mr. Mortazavi was accused by members of Parliament of covering up the death of a Canadian photographer, Zahra Kazemi, while she was in an Iranian jail. He was removed from his position as Tehran prosecutor in August 2009 after a parliamentary investigation into the Kahrizak affair, only to be reappointed as the head of a government antismuggling organization. “Mortazavi misused his powers,” said Mohammad Saleh-Nikbakht, who represents the father of Amir Javadifar, one of the young men who died in Kahrizak after being severely beaten.

The suspension of the judges paves the way for their prosecution in civil courts, where they are likely to face charges from victims and their families. Despite the move by Iran’s judiciary, some believe that the likelihood of a substantial prosecution is slim. “If we look at history there is little cause to be hopeful,” a veteran human rights lawyer, Mohammad-Hossein Aghassi, said in an interview. “They may be doing this in order to dispel accusations that Iran’s judiciary lacks independence.”

Trials of 12 prison wardens and police officers involved in the running of Kahrizak prison were held behind closed doors earlier this year. Two men were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in July and nine others were given prison terms, ordered to pay “blood money” or temporarily suspended from duty after being convicted of lesser crimes.

William Yong reported from Tehran, and Robert F. Worth from Washington.

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