11/17/2006, 00.00
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Press controls increase as election campaign gets underway

by Dariush Mirzai
As the day to renew the Assembly of Experts approaches, repression against the press, print and electronic, increases. Intimidating journalists is routine. For Reporters Without Borders, Iran is "the Middle East's biggest prison for journalists and bloggers". It ranks 162 out of 168 on the World Press Freedom Index.

Tehran (AsiaNews) – The campaign to elect the new Assembly of Experts began today. Voters will cast their ballot to elect members to this congressional body on December 15. They will able to choose from 144 candidates (out of 495 men and women who applied to run) to take the 86 seats available. Only Muslims will be allowed to vote. Amongst its prerogatives, Assembly selects Iran's life-time Supreme Leader and can, in theory, remove him from office. The office is currently held by the powerful Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Despite the trappings of electoral politics, elections in Iran are not democratic, not only because candidates are hand-picked by the so-called "Council of guardians" and because non Muslims are often deprived of the right to vote (as in the upcoming December 15 vote), but also because press freedom is non existent.

Rumours, lies, and fear are the main ingredients of what goes for a public debate. And Iranian leaders' provocative statements about Israel and the United States do little to improve the country's image abroad.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RWB), Iran "remains the Middle East's biggest prison for journalists and bloggers". Iranian journalists are jailed or prevented from travelling abroad; foreign journalists are not allowed to report from the country. And the situation is getting worse.

RWB's World Press Freedom Index places the Islamic Republic at the 162nd position in a field of 168, worse than all Arab countries including Saudi Arabia.

The tools of control and repression vary. The most visible is outright closure of newspapers by the courts or the government's press watchdog. Throwing journalists like Akbar Ganji in jail is another. In fact, six journalists were arrested and three papers shut down in September and October of this year.

In a communiqué release on October 5, the European Union stated that all Iranian journalists are victims of constant harassment and various forms of intimidation, bemoaning the fact their best protection is self-censorship or exile.

Newspapers that do come out are now by and large linked to power cliques within the regime and know when they can't cross the line. Even then, more and more papers are shut down by force like reform-oriented Shargh.

The powerful Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance closely monitors Iranian journalists and the few foreign correspondents allowed to report from Iran. For the latter, even the smallest error in translation leads to public denunciation and demands for apologies.

The ministry can veto visa applications from foreign reporters, its procedures are unpredictable and many applications are rejected. This in itself is intimidating and lead to self-censorship. And at present matters are getting worse.

Except for members of the ruling class, the general public is also affected by the regime's repressive actions. Satellite TV is blocked and dishes and antennae are confiscated by aggressive and threatening agents of the state. Among the poorest sections of the population such actions are however popular because they lack the means and linguistic competence to view international satellite TV.

Internet, too, is tightly controlled. For instance, www.meydaan.com, a site that wanted the stoning of women banned was blocked. Bloggers are under close scrutiny and sometimes jailed.

On November 7, webzine www.tik.ir was the latest online victim of state repression. Its crime: criticising Iranian President Ahmadinejad and extremist mullah Mezbah Yazdi who is running for a seat in the Assembly of Experts, and perhaps, eventually, for the post of Supreme Leader.

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