Unprecedented Levels of Censorship in Iran Today
Interview with Eisa Saharkhiz
Eisa Saharkhiz was born in Abadan in 1953. He migrated to Karaj with his family when he was six. He completed his elementary and high school education in Karaj and graduated with an Economics degree from the University of Tehran in 1979. He began his work as a journalist and economic consultant in the official press of Iranian government. After Khatami’s resignation from his post as the minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Saharkhiz, too, resigned from his post as the director of IRNA and began his work as the head of the Islamic Republic’s press agency in the United Nations in New York. In 1997, with the return of Khatami to power, Saharkhiz returned to Iran and began working in Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
In 1999, after being charged by the Iranian judiciary, Eisa Saharkhiz resigned from his post as the head of the Internal Press in Ministry of Guidance. The Islamic Republic’s judiciary had charged Saharkhiz in connection with issuing license for Zan [Woman], a newspaper that at the time was banned. As a result, he was tried in 2003 and was handed a sentence that prevented him from assuming any governmental responsibility for one year.
Eisa Saharkhiz is the executive director of the banned monthly, Aftab, and a member of the Association for the Defense of Press Freedom. Formerly, he was a representative of the press in the Committee for Supervision of the Press. The story of his skirmish with Mohsen Ezhei, the current minister of Intelligence and his being bitten by the latter was circulated widely for some time.
In an interview, in response to the question about whether he had held any post in military or security organizations or intelligence services immediately after the revolution, Saharkhiz stated: “My activity during the revolution consists in my work in Jahade Sazandagi (Jihad for Reconstruction). In addition, I was also working as a reporter, covering military campaigns on various fronts in the last year of the war with Iraq.”
Kasra Tehrani: Mr. Saharkhiz, could you, as an introduction, define freedom of the press in Iran form your own perspective?
Eisa Saharkhiz: Freedom of the press is based on law. When we look at the constitution, we see that, as long as it has not inflicted harm on the rights of people and society, the press is free. According to this law, whenever the press violates the rights of people or society, courts should examine this violation of the press with the presence of a defense attorney and a jury. Allow me to emphasize that “the jury” should represent the public opinion, not what exists at the moment.
Tehrani: How do you compare freedom of the press in Iran, on the one hand, with democratic systems and, on the other hand, with the other countries in the region?
Saharkhiz: Naturally, not only now but even during “the spring of freedom of the press” [the early years of Khatami’s presidency] we were far from an ideal situation, because as long as the culture of freedom and democracy is not profoundly assimilated into society, the complete institutionalization of freedom of the press is not possible.
Here, I am comparing freedom of the press with the ideal situation, because in western countries, like the United States, the degree of freedom in diverse circumstances differs. For example, when the United States becomes involved in a war, the level of freedom is different. The news and journalists’ reports are controlled and they can continue their work under censorship.
Today, not only are we far from the ideal situation, but we are very far from the position we had during “the spring of freedom of the press,” which, naturally, was not quite ideal either.
Today, censorship and self-censorship have reached their highest level in the post-revolutionary Iran. Even during the war, journalists and the press were never so restricted.
But in comparison with other countries in the region, if we don’t look at it from the perspective of volume and technical quality, but consider it in terms of journalism and political reportage, we are more advanced.
TEHRANI: How do you substantiate your claim?
Saharkhiz: These countries are much more advanced than Iran in terms of the quality of print, design, color, graphics and the type of paper they use. But as soon as they focus on political journalism and the critique of centers of power, you notice that they do not have much space to maneuver in. These countries have established a tradition according to which journalists know the “red lights” beyond which they cannot transgress. In these countries, one does not see any critique of the ruler or his family; one cannot even criticize the government.
But in Iran, especially during ‘the spring of freedom of the press,” an atmosphere had materialized where even the highest ranks of the state had become the targets of scrutiny and criticism. Within this background, journalists were questioning general and specific policies of the government, and people’s opinions and exchanges were being heard everywhere. Naturally, this level of freedom had its own cost, and the assault on the press was its consequence.
That was, of course, the particular conditions during “the spring of freedom of the press,” but even now, despite all the restrictions, I notice that part of the press and some journalists, to a certain extent, proceed with their criticism of politics and power, a phenomenon that we cannot find its instance in other countries of the region.
Tehrani: What do you think are the obstacles that block freedom of the press? Do you think these obstacles are limited to those that the government sets up?
Saharkhiz: I have already pointed out that the culture of democracy and freedom has not been absorbed and digested in Iran. We are on the threshold of the centennial celebration of Mashrutè, and when we look at that period’s press law, we see that, in some respects, it was more advanced than the current one. On the basis of that law, we enjoyed a greater freedom.
At the same time, when we encounter people in our society, we witness a lack of tolerance for the opinions of others. The crackdown on the newspaper Iran and the imprisonment of two of its journalists was an example of society’s intolerance of free expression.
Another point is related to the approach to religious issues. We sometimes see that dealing with superstition and challenging the subjects whose superstitious nature is clear to everyone causes problems for the press and leads to the arrest of managing editors and journalists.
Somewhere else, we see that those in power do not wish to listen to contrary opinions or experts’ views. The last case is the open letter in which fifty university professors have criticized the inappropriate policies of Mr. Ahmadinezhad. Mr. Ahmadinezhad’s government considered the views of these experts as a slander.
Those in power do not even tolerate criticism from within the system and try to silence criticism, even when it comes from within the system, through the arrest of journalists and closure of newspapers.
In sum, as long as we do not have a culture of tolerance and understanding, of lenience and broad-mindedness, we will be incapable of achieving an adequate degree of freedom of the press. Centuries ago, Saadi, the famous Iranian poet, was propagating the culture of tolerance, but we are still far from it.
Tehrani: You talked about censorship and pointed out that self-censorship has reached its highest level after the revolution. How do you assess the role of this self-censorship in limiting freedom of the press?
Saharkhiz: In recent years an interesting incident occurred in Iran. In the first eighteen months of Mr. Khatami’s presidency, the opposition felt that the press could exert a tremendous impact on the society. For example, the press was able to shape public opinion in such a way that the electoral list of candidates it endorsed was widely embraced by the people. The press’s influence was so immense that the chance of the success of its listed candidates was much more than those belonging to the most important factions and parties at the time.
The press showed that it could create the kind of conditions where the past of many of those in power could be questioned. This led to crackdown on many newspapers and magazines. Thousands of people lost their jobs. In some cases, both husband and wife were journalists and, within one year, all newspapers and publications they were working for were, one after another, closed down and they ended up unemployed. The cases of the unemployment of journalist families and their accompanying social and financial difficulties became a widespread phenomenon. In such an atmosphere, one thing assumes prominence and that is survival. Alongside of this, we witness that the state’s organizations and judicial authorities repeatedly summon the managing directors of the press and they, sometimes, spend a day or two in jail. After that, these managing directors should also spend a considerable amount of time dealing with legal affairs and moving back and forth between their daily life and the courts. Sometimes, trivial matters lead to absurd summons by the courts and a lengthy waste of time. These summons are sometimes official and sometimes unofficial, but the result is always the same for the press’s managing directors, a huge and senseless waste of time.
These factors contribute to the desire to turn into an immediate goal and urgent priority the decrease and elimination of “additional” troubles. The managing directors then reason that the authorities banned this or that newspaper and the cause was this or that article or report; therefore, in order to evade the same fate, it would be better not to write anything at all. These ‘additional” troubles can precipitate the shutting down of their workplace and cause their unemployment. They are forced into a position that they decide not to publish or tell many of the realities that exist in the society; they are forced to deny the truth. Only in this way can they escape the closure of their newspaper.
So, in many cases, these are the managing directors that make the noose around the neck of freedom of the press tighter and tighter. Sometimes, they don’t even talk about the issues that had already been written about. Here, as we are comparing some newspapers, we perceive the degree of their conservatism or, to put it more descriptively, their “desire for survival.” Here there is a rift and contradiction between the existing work of the press and journalists and their commitment to the truth and society. This process, little by little, turns into habit as the journalist tries to diminish the extent of his commitment and intensify his desire for survival.
Tehrani: As a managing director, as a state director whose job was in connection with the press, and as a member of the central committee of the Association for the Defense of Press Freedom, you have, in three different positions, been naturally preoccupied with the lack of respect for the rights of journalists.
Saharkhiz: The truth is the most significant problem that threatens Iranian journalists today is the absence of guarantee for their jobs. They do not, in any way, know whether their jobs will exist tomorrow or not! Another thing is in this arena we have undergone a “premature death” or “infantile death.” This means that, before reaching maturity, the press experiences unwanted or wanted death and termination. One thing that happened during the period of reforms was the formation of journalists’ associations and guilds. This is a very important achievement. In this connection, we can name the Guild of Journalists, which is very large, and the Association for the Defense of Press Freedom, which is a supporting organization and is not as large as the Guild of Journalists. In the same vein, the conservatives also began to establish certain associations, such as the Association of Moslem Journalists. We can also name certain secondary associations, such as the Guild of Free Journalists, the Guild of Women Journalists, and the Guild of Young Journalists. All these people belong to the guild and associations that have struggled to safeguard journalists’ rights.
Another positive point is that there is now a function mediating between journalists and their employers, similar to that which performs the task of resolving differences between employees and employers in other economic areas. The real problem, however, sets in when the government is the other side of the dispute, which usually leads to the closure of newspapers and publications and the arrest and imprisonment of journalists. In these situations, tens, hundreds, and in the worst case scenario, thousands of journalists lose their jobs.
At one point an attempt was made to solve the critical problem of unemployed journalists by asking the government to help them. But a government, which considers journalists as the mercenaries of foreign powers, will naturally refuse to help them when they are “plunging” into ruin. It even tries to accelerate this “fall” and give it a more brutal turn.
Tehrani: What is the situation of the wages and salaries of journalists in Iran? Are there any specific classifications in this regard?
Saharkhiz: Like all other areas, demand, supply, and the degree of need for labor force are very crucial in this market. At one point, when many newspapers and publications are born simultaneously, the demand for journalists may be higher than usual. At this juncture, not only will a journalist’s salary increase in relation to labor time, he will also face with an opportunity to work for two or three newspapers at the same time. These two factors increase his earnings.
The opposite situation comes into being when the demand in the market decreases and, in the worst case scenario, the journalist is forced to work for free. I know many such cases.
The procedure is like this: when a newspaper begins its publication, it asks the journalist to work without receiving any payment until this newspaper can gain its readership and establish its sales. Sometimes, this transitional period lasts for months, and since the journalist cannot find another job in the market, he is forced to continue working without being paid. This amounts to what one may call “journalism on credit,” working in the hope of receiving payment in the future. Of course, there is a difference between new journalists and those who are well-known and more experienced, but even the latter group’s earnings are subject to what I just mentioned.
On the whole, although we can say that, in relation to the rate of inflation, the earnings of journalists have shown an increase, this increase is quite insignificant when it is compared with some other jobs. This situation points to the fact that cultural activities in Iran, on the whole, earn much less than their value; the money they earn is not proportionate to their value.
Tehrani: If I am not wrong, poverty line in Iran for a family of four is 250,000 tomans a month [each American dollar is approximately 900 tomans]. Now, how much is the salary of a journalist who has a permanent job and works for an established publication?
Saharkhiz: If I overlook one or two exceptional newspapers and use newspapers and not weeklies as the basis of my evaluation, I can say that the earnings of this group, up to the rank of service editor, are below or on the threshold of poverty line. The earnings of higher ranks, such as managing editors and editors-in chief, usually place them above poverty line.
Tehrani: When faced with the dangers of dismissal or unemployment, those who work in “ordinary” jobs can refer their case to governmental or legal authorities for examination or possible reconsideration. What is the situation of journalists in this respect? I stress that I mean those journalists who work in established official press which is not always on the verge of being closed down or going bankrupt.
Saharkhiz: The journalists who begin their work with a legal contract are subject to labor law and therefore, if necessary, the related departments in Ministry of Labor protect them. They can also seek the help of a large syndicate like the Guild of Journalists. This guild will then enter the process as a mediator. The authorized members of the guild will invite the employer, who has a problem with his employee, and discuss the matter with him and try to resolve the dispute to the satisfaction of both parties.
I repeat that this process can only be applied to those labor relations that are based on a contract, and those who begin their jobs without a contract are often deprived of the privilege to resort to labor law and receive the guild’s assistance.
Tehrani: What percentage of the press’s workforce is covered by the guild?
Saharkhiz: First, we do not have an exact statistics as to the number of journalists. Labor law has a definition in this respect that does not cover many active people in the field of journalism. the Guild of Journalists has two thousand “peyvasteh” (connected) members and thirty-five hundred “na-peyvasteh” (unconnected) members. One of the obstacles in the way of membership is that it requires a record service of three years. Naturally, many of those who have recently graduated from university, and many who have learned their jobs experientially and are working currently, cannot fulfill this condition. Of course, an attempt is now being made to allow these people to enter the guild as “na-peyvasteh” members, so that their rights can be protected.
Tehrani: Could you elaborate on the difference between “peyvasteh” and “na-peyvasteh” members?
Saharkhiz: I am myself active in the guild and one of my problems is that, in the guild’s definitions, managing directors are regarded as employers, while these are the license-holders who should be considered as employers. Managing directors are in the position of an amphibian creature; on the one hand, they are viewed as employer and, on the other hand, as employee.
To sum up, the guild’s “peyvasteh” or full members are given more privileges and a fuller coverage. I should also point out that the guild’s central committee has tried to fill legal and bureaucratic gaps in order to offer its services to all journalists. This is particularly apparent in the case of the dispute between the employee and the employer, because the guild has been trying to protect journalists’ rights.
Tehrani: You are a member of the Association for the Defense of Press Freedom. What can this association accomplish in the way of institutionalizing freedom of the press, and what has it done so far?
Saharkhiz: It is a watchdog organization that observes freedom of publication. It has so far used all the tools in its possession to achieve its objectives: bringing into open crucial realities, issuing statements, warning against the threat to freedoms, and other similar attempts, are some of these tools. We have tried to expose the violation of human rights through the repression of the press and take a stand against it. We have tried to make public opinion aware of such cases and intensify their sensitivity to these violations of rights. At times, we have also lobbied and engaged in negotiations with government’s representatives. Two examples of it took place during Mr. Akbar Ganji’s hunger strike. We sat at the negotiation table with the judiciary. We succeeded to meet with and speak to them.
Tehrani: Could you describe some specific activities of this association?
Saharkhiz: As an example, to encourage positive activities, we have introduced to our society the people who, in exceptional ways, have taken steps to defend freedom of the press. This task was carried out in the form of awarding the Golden pen. One of the recipients of the award was Mr. Hossein Ansari Rad who, as the head of the National Assembly’s “the Principle 90 Commission,” acted quite unequivocally in distributing the news. Last year, the Golden Pen was awarded to Hossein-Ali Montazeri for his unflinching support for freedom of the press. This year, the Association presented Akbar Ganji with this award for the extraordinary courage and determination that he had shown in his struggle for the freedom of publication.
We have written letters to the authorities in charge of prisons, the three branches of the government, and the Supreme Leader, and have tried, by resorting to this course of action, influence the process of defense for a free press. We have organized a number of demonstrations, including the demonstration before the National Assembly, to realize our objective. We have issued statements protesting against many violations of human rights and freedom of the press.
Tehrani: You mentioned the Guild of Moslem Journalists and explained that it belonged to the conservative faction. It seems that the Association for the Defense of Press Freedom is an organization dominated by reformist forces and certain barriers place it beyond the access of those who are not “one of us.” Isn’t it? Does your association admit in its ranks “non-reformists’ or those whose legitimacy is not acknowledged by the present established institutions?
Saharkhiz: The truth is that a dual governing body exists in Iran. The different approaches of two existing factions bring about this duality in the ruling establishment. There is one faction that views and prescribes a press which is un-free, and this is, naturally, one side of the dispute. For example, the Guild of Moslem Journalists consists of individuals, such as the Supreme Leader’s representative in Keyhan newspaper and the editor-in-chief of this very newspaper, who later on became minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. These people do not tolerate many free journalistic activities. Considering that I am both Moslem and journalist, I have applied for membership in this guild many times. But they impose specific limitations and have a political outlook. Our outlook in the Association for the Defense of Press Freedom is not political. We are concerned with the acts of individuals in the context of freedoms and non-violation of human rights. In our charter, there is paragraph that prevents the membership of those who have been involved in violating human rights and constricting freedom of the press.
Our reason is that a person who violated freedom of the press cannot defend this freedom.
But we have not barred secular forces from entering our ranks. We have not restricted ideological or religious outlook. At different points, certain individuals, who have not been known for being religious, have been members of our central committee. Masoud Behnood, for instance, was at one point a member of the association’s central committee. There are currently other people in the association as well with whom we have got along well.
Tehrani: Is any member of the association has faced or experienced legal problem, arrest and imprisonment?
Saharkhiz: Many members of the central committee have, at different times, been arrested or imprisoned. But the reality is in Iran you are usually charged with something other than what you are actually active in. I mean you engage in a specific field of activity, but they level a charge against you that has nothing to do with that activity. Naturally, the authorities are sensitive to and suspicious of the activities of the members of the central committee; cases are filed against them and they are summoned by the authorities and pressured, directly or indirectly, to stop or limit their activities.
Tehrani: After Ahmadonezhad’s accession to power, has any change occurred in relation to the present restrictions?
Saharkhiz: At the time of Iran’s presidential election, we insisted on participating in the election in order to maintain the duality within the ruling body, because it could preserve freedom to some extent. We engaged in a debate with the supporters of boycotting the election because we believed that their analysis of the situation was not valid and they did not understand the differences properly. Those who were behind the banning of newspapers, arrests, and different kinds of pressures, are now in power; now they carry out many of their policies by resorting to law and official authorities. If we were formerly only scuffling with the judiciary over censorship, we now have to deal with the pressures that the High Council of National Security and Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance inflict on us. The same pressures exist in relation to gatherings and publication of books. The ruling faction is trying to subdue our guild, just as it did with the National Assembly and the government. I mean, after the new government’s takeover, all the levers were used to increase pressure and amplify restrictions.
These restrictions are intensified so much that even Iran, a government’s official newspaper, is banned and its journalists, who are practically the government’s employees, are imprisoned.
Tehrani: So in the next election in the Guild of Journalists, this organization will be appropriated by the radical faction?
Saharkhiz: We know they try their best and plan to the best of their ability. But on the opposite side, an effort is made to maintain the unity of the supporters of press freedom. In the least, this group will hang on to the majority of seats in the central committee.
Tehrani: What outlook do you see for press freedom in the future months and years? What kinds of action bring you closer to this goal?
Saharkhiz: you should keep in mind that in Iran you cannot predict the future years. Sometimes, even the outlook of something in a month or so is uncertain. Our measures should be hours, days, or, at most, weeks.
The truth is freedom of the press is directly bound up with public freedom in the society and the attitude of the authorities toward these freedoms. Any shifts and changes on the high levels of the state affect these conditions. At a time when the extremist faction, with the support of a “garrison party,” and under certain circumstances, has appropriated the power, a change in the condition of freedoms, including freedom of the press, is possible only in one form: the pressures from within should increase so much, or external pressures reach such a degree, that they make the ruling faction feel incapable of coping with them or fighting against them on multiple fronts.
At the same time, a situation, in which the ruling body thinks that it needs to create a relative satisfaction for a considerable number of people, may also force this ruling body to relax and broaden these freedoms, or to put it more precisely, the government may be forced to decrease these pressures to attract popular support.
Of course, in both cases, the authorities may act in an absolutely irrational manner and turn to an intensification of arrests and pressures, of which journalists and the press will naturally be the prime targets. Of course, considering the announced agendas and existing positions of the government, the second approach seems more probable. In any case, both events have a chance of playing themselves out and we cannot predict which one will take place.
Tehrani: Akbar Ganji, whom you worked for his freedom so much and the Association for the Defense of Press Freedom awarded him the Golden Pen, believes that, within the framework of existing structures, to achieve the freedom you desire is impossible. What is your opinion about this?
Saharkhiz: In my view, both real and legal structures suffer from radical deficiencies. But, I am, at the same time, familiar with the social and political potentialities of our society. I would like to put forward a question to these friends: with what social force do they want to realize their plan. Talk is not enough; they should engage in long-term tasks, and their plans should have a structured form. In order to advance this program, you should have connection with the people.
The crux of these talks is that we cannot do anything inside the country; therefore, we should go outside of Iran and stretch our hands for help before foreigners, especially the United States. Many of these friends formerly used to say they were not seeking the assistance of foreign powers to realize their goal. They used to say they would not give up their independence in order to bring democracy to Iran by relying on foreign forces. But, in practice, the eyes of these friends were fixed on outside forces and they, a little later, became the propagators of an American military invasion of Iran. I believe if we see in ourselves a power to change, we should then affect a change in the regime’s behavior. How can a person, who cannot make the regime change its behavior, pursue the change of the regime?
Tehrani: Do you think that Akbar Ganji will also choose the same path that others have also taken, as you suggest, by resorting to Americans?
Saharkhiz: I hope this doesn’t happen. I believe Mr. Ganji is a very intelligent, clever, and wise person. He knows the ropes and does not fall into this trap.
Tehrani: Mr. Saharkhiz, I thank you for your time.