September 14, 2006

Silencing Dissent

Tehran’s latest crackdown on the media is providing fresh fodder for conspiracy theorists.
By Maziar Bahari

Updated: 8:12 p.m. ET Sept. 13, 2006
Sept. 13, 2006 - The mullahs weren’t amused. The chessboard cartoon—captioned "The Alternative Rules of the Game"—showed a white knight facing off against a black donkey encircled in a halo of light. The light seemed to refer to a speech by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his reported comments that his audience saw him surrounded by a divine light during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last year. Iranian leaders found the allusion so disrespectful that they closed down Shargh, the reformist daily newspaper that had printed the drawing.

Shargh was one of four publications shut down on Sept. 11 by the Press Supervisory Board, a conservative government watchdog group that monitors Iran's media. In addition to the cartoon, the board said the newspaper was also guilty of such misdemeanors as interviewing the British and German ambassadors to Tehran; citing the BBC as a reliable source of information; propagating Marxist ideas; publishing an interview with former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, and carrying reports about premarital sex and children born out of wedlock.

For Shargh's 300 employees, the closure was not a new experience. Most had previously worked on one of the more than 100 newspapers that were shut down by the government during the last eight years; some have lost their jobs several times. "Shargh was the only truly independent newspaper in the country with a large circulation [of 100,000]," city reporter Samaneh Ghadarkhan told NEWSWEEK. "The closure shows that the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad cannot take any criticism. The fact that the closure has happened on the eve of two important elections [for city councils and the Assembly of Experts, which supervises the actions of Iran's supreme leader] is a sign that they don't want any voice except for theirs in the country." There was also concern about the economic effects of the ban on the paper's 2,000 distribution and sales workers. "The government has a primitive approach to solving its problems vis-à-vis the press," says Emaddedin Baghi, a human-rights activist whose son-in-law, Mohammad Ghoochani, is the editor of Shargh. "Even if there has been a mistake, why should they punish everyone collectively? It's like shutting down a factory for the mistake of a worker. What should the rest of the people do? Should they die of hunger?"

Still, for many the talk was less about the fate of the unemployed staffers than the grist that the shutdown provided for their rumor mill. Iranians have always loved conspiracy theories, and the government's latest crackdown on the media and human-rights activists has fostered plenty of those in recent weeks. The conspiracy theory du jour? That the Islamic regime has reached a convenient agreement with the West whereby Tehran will compromise on its nuclear program in exchange for silence on human-rights abuses and the suppression of freedom of expression. Like most Iranian conspiracy theories, this one speculates that foreigners are behind the events. And like most, it springs up from a hodgepodge of information gleaned by speculators in a country that lacks open forums for debate and analysis. But true or not, the mere fact that the theories exist has an impact all its own. "I don't have any facts about whether a deal was made or not," says Emaddedin Baghi, a human-rights activist. "But this is something that you and I can hear on the street everyday. That in itself is important."

Iranian theories about a deal appear to be based on two recent developments. Last week, for the first time in months, both Iranian and European negotiators expressed satisfaction about the progress made during their nuclear talks. Iranians have allegedly agreed to suspend uranium enrichment for a period of two months, and the Europeans agreed to further discussions rather than carrying out threats to impose sanctions on Tehran. At the same time, both Washington and the West have been uncharacteristically silent on the subject of Tehran’s latest moves against dissenting voices. Just six weeks ago, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that Washington condemned the Iranian government's severe repression of dissidents after an imprisoned student activist, Akbar Mohammadi, died during a hunger strike in jail. Yet when after another prisoner, Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi, hung himself in prison on Sept. 6, there was no public statement about human-rights abuses in Iran.

That didn’t surprise Iranians, who have long considered Western comments on civil liberties to be hypocritical and counterproductive. "I usually don't like to connect different events to each other," says Shadi Sadr, an Iranian women's rights activist. "But a deal between the Iranian government and the West is not unprecedented. Human rights in Iran have always been the victim of lucrative trade deals between Iran and the Western governments." Nor are the rumormongers likely to be convinced by the European diplomat who told NEWSWEEK emphatically that no deal had been made. In their circles, denials are just another part of the conspiracy.


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