MP Calls On Rouhani to Stop Judiciary’s Closure of Newspapers
Hardliners Bypassing Press Oversight Committee to Shutter Publications
A prominent member of the Iranian Parliament who sits on the Press Oversight Committee has called on the Rouhani Administration to stop what he believes is the wrongful process of newspaper closures.
MP Ali Motahhari was speaking a day after the major daily Ghanoon was shut down by the Tehran Prosecutor’s Office on charges of publishing a “false” report about the release of a former Revolutionary Guards commander from detention.
This is the fifth newspaper closed by the Judiciary since the election of Hassan Rouhani, a responsibility previously carried out by the Press Oversight Committee. The Judiciary’s direct intervention in limiting the press is a part of a wider approach by the hardliners to bypass the Press Oversight Committee and control the press and social networking tools, and block fulfillment of pledges Rouhani made during his campaign to safeguard freedom of expression in Iran. In the case of a recent order to block the popular social networking tool, WhatsApp, however, President Rouhani pushed back against the Judiciary and took the highly unusual step of lifting the ban on the social media network.
In an interview with the ISNA state news agency, MP Motahhari reminded the President and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that the legal authority in charge of judging the actions of newspapers is the Press Oversight Committee.
The Committee consists of representatives from the Judiciary and Legislative branches, Qom Seminary, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, representatives of newspaper publishers, and the ministries of Higher Education and Guidance. Although the Committee is remembered for its harsh approach to the press during the Ahmadinejad presidency, since Hassan Rouhani’s election, the Committee’s composition represents the Rouhani cabinet’s more moderate views toward the press. As a result, the Committee is routinely circumvented to deliver newspaper closure orders.
In the past several months, the Culture and Media Court, a branch of the Judiciary, has taken the initiative in ordering the closure of newspapers, namely Bahar, Aseman, Ebtekar, and Neshat. The first two, which are in Rouhani’s camp, remain closed.
“It is necessary for the President and the Culture Minister to have talks with the Judiciary Chief and resolve this issue in a way that preserves the legal authority of the Press Oversight Committee and ends the dual-authority hanging over newspapers,” Motahhari said.
He added that the final decision regarding the actions of newspapers should be left to their peers in the Press Oversight Committee.
The latest newspaper closure by the Judiciary took place against Ghanoon, even though the supposedly “false” report it published was originally from the Dana news agency, which claimed former IRGC commander Rouyanian had been released on bail of 1 trillion rial ($30 million).
Rouyanian, a former manager of the Persepolis soccer club, was taken into custody on May 6, on charges of corruption and financial fraud relating to his tenure as head of the Fuel Distribution Administration.
Significantly, MP Motahhari’s call on the President to step in against the Judiciary’s closure of the newspaper comes after the Mehr news agency reported that Rouhani had directly ordered the lifting of a ban on WhatsApp.
The decision to filter WhatsApp had been taken by the Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, headed by the Prosecutor General and consisting of security and judicial officials.
Abdolsamad Khorramabadi, Head of the Working Group, told Mehr news agency that the President could not transfer the authority of the Working Group to the Supreme Cyberspace Council. The majority of the council’s members are believed to be in favor of the President’s more moderate policies.
Communications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi rejected Khorramabadi’s view. He told Mehr that the Criminal Content Working Group could not overrule the President.
Vaezi defended the decision to unblock WhatsApp and said, “Social media networks are not destructive and do not harm our public morals. The government does not agree with shutting them down unless we have an alternative replacement.”