TEHRAN Mohammad Quchani has worked for 11
newspapers that were closed by the Iranian authorities and most
never reopened. So he won't predict how long the daily which he
launched last month as editor will survive.
"It depends on political issues and it also depends on how
the newspaper proceeds," the 30-year-old said in the central
Tehran offices of Ham Mihan (Compatriot).
For newspapers like Ham Mihan which back the ideas of
Iran's liberal-leaning reformist camp, avoiding closure demands
a careful balancing act -- pushing the boundaries of criticism
but staying within sometimes obscure political "red lines."
The situation is more nuanced than the image of Iran
portrayed by critics in the west, of a system that represses
all critical opinion. There are Iranian commentators who even
see signs of a fragile revival for reformist publications.
But journalists say it is still easy to fall foul of the
authorities -- particularly since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
came to power in 2005 with speeches against the West and those
he sees challenging the values of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Sharq, the reformist daily Quchani previously worked for,
was closed in September for a range of offences, which included
defying demands that it replace its managing director, who was
accused of blasphemy and insulting officials.
At the time, some journalists saw the move as part of the
government's efforts to silence any opposition -- a charge
officials dismiss, saying the government welcomes criticism.
Initially, many of the Sharq journalists launched a new
title -- following a pattern that emerged in the late 1990s
when dozens of reformist newspapers were shut, only to be
opened under a different guise, some publishing for just days.
The authorities quickly saw the new paper as a thinly
veiled version of Sharq and shut it. But Sharq fought its
closure in court and won. In May it republished.
"We will do whatever we can not to have any legal problems.
We will respect those 'red lines' that we can understand, not
to pass beyond them," said Managing Director Mahdi Rahmanian,
40, whose removal had originally been demanded by the
Iran's nuclear row with the West is a subject which
requires "sensitive and careful" coverage, he said. Judiciary
news "we are a bit careful about." He is wary about military
stories. And other ministries "complain this is our red line."
"But our problem is sometimes we don't know where are the
prohibited areas," he added.
Other journalists say there is a level playing field for
all newspapers. Amir Mohebian, political editor of the
conservative Resalat, says that broadly "we have freedom to
publish our ideas, both ... reformist and conservative."
Even without the challenge of no-go areas, battling for
readers is tough: Iran's biggest circulation daily, Hamshahri,
sells some 400,000 copies a day, compared with Sharq's 70,000,
in a country of about 70 million.
Hamshahri is an organ of Tehran council and its view has
swung from reformist to conservative with swings in the make-up
of the municipality.
Smaller papers fight for advertising. Struggling to make
ends meet with newsstand sales, they often need a wealthy
Quchani said advertisers were being scared away by "the
authorities" from buying space in his newspaper, a charge that
could not be independently verified.
Some see the republication of Sharq and launch of Ham Mihan
as a modest revival for Iran's reformists, who want more social
and political freedoms and better ties with the world.
Iran is now under U.N. sanctions for not stopping work that
the West says is to build atomic bombs, a charge Tehran denies.
"This sort of sign shows that, in spite of the hardline
pressure in the political field, the pragmatist branch of the
political system is still working," said Tehran University
professor Hamidreza Jalaiepour.
Ahmadinejad's opponents -- a group that increasingly spans
both reformists and more pragmatic politicians like former
President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- have recovered some of
their poise since his presidential victory.
In the city council elections in December, Ahmadinejad's
supporters were roundly trounced, particularly in Tehran.
But others say the recovery of a more moderate voice in
Iranian politics is fragile. Analysts point to the arrest of
U.S.-Iranians on charges of spying as the latest sign those who
oppose rapprochement with the West are still in charge.
Iranian blog sites, which often carry reports and opinion,
are regularly blocked by the authorities.
Some say the survival of the two reformist newspapers may
be partly because the authorities want to show the world Iran
allows political debate, particularly as groups position
themselves ahead of the 2008 parliament elections.
Others say it is a purely legal matter and that papers like
Sharq and Ham Mihan have shown a greater readiness to stay
within the "red lines" so that they will at least have some
voice to influence debate ahead of the March 14 polls.
"When we get closer to the parliamentary election, we will
see them publish because, I feel, they accepted to work inside
the framework of the law," said Mohebian.