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Can new president Hassan Rohani free Iran’s media?

June 22, 2013

Reporters without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based media watchdog, has expressed cautious optimism that Hassan Rohani’s victory in Iran’s recent presidential election could reverse the country’s war on freedom of the media. However, as reports emerge that Rohani might have been “allowed to win,” fundamental reform – including that of the media – appears questionable.

In a public statement released on June 18, RSF said, “Your campaign promises included references to a desire to work for freedom of expression and media freedom, and the release of all political prisoners. These firm undertakings encouraged progressives, especially young people and women, to vote en masse for you. It is now your duty to keep these promises, and to ensure that they are not empty, meaningless words.”
The RSF statement draws attention to its demands to Rohani when he was campaigning for the election. The demands included releasing from detention 54 journalists and netizens, an end to impunity and investigations beginning into the murder of 11 journalists, a repeal of censorship laws and improved access to the internet.

Meanwhile, Rohani’s willingness to act on his promises was tested at a press conference on June 16 when he was questioned on the closure of the offices of the Association of Iranian Journalists (AoIJ) an affiliate of the media watchdog International Federation of Journalist (IFJ). IFJ said in a statement on June 19 that Rohani “replied that ‘guilds and associations are the best ways to run social affairs of the society.’

IFJ reacted with a letter signed by its president Jim Boumelha welcoming Rohani’s attitude to media freedom and civil liberties, but cautioned there was still a long way to go. “Your words of ‘new opportunities’ and ‘constructive interaction’ and your emphasis on ‘Iranian people bringing back hope throughout their turnout and participation’ ring true … However, they will have a fuller meaning if you re-open the space for free journalism by ordering the lifting of the close of the Association and release journalists in jail.”
One reason for optimism is that Rohani was endorsed by two former reform-minded presidents: Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. It is notable that under Khatami, elected president in 1997, a number of restrictions of the media were relaxed.
But now that the dust has settled on the elections, more thoughtful assessments of Rohani and the electoral process are emerging. “The question is whether Rowhani can deliver on the hopes he ignited in the country. He will have to deal with a conservative parliament unsympathetic to his policies…,” writes Haleh Esfandiari director, Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars wrote in the New York Times. Among the hurdles for Rohani she cites is opposition from the country’s all-powerful supreme leader Ali Khameni and the hardliners in the elite military corps, the Revolutionary Guard.
Another theory is that Rohani was ‘permitted’ to win. With crippling economic sanctions and strident opposition to Iran’s foreign policy, especially with regard to nuclear weapons and the country’s role in the Middle East, commentators feel a nominally reform-minded president like Rohani would be an asset in Teheran. Carol J. Williams in an article to the Los Angeles Times said Rohani’s victor was a “confluence of government self-interest and popular hunger for change.” Williams goes on to quote Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center’s Middle East program: “He’s (Rohani)  not talking about fundamental reform, he’s talking about increasing social freedoms, a more diversified press, and he’s addressing the economy…”
Reform of the system will depend on how Rohani negotiates the domestic and international forces surrounding him. But there might very well be an opportunity for smaller changes such a diversified press and releasing political prisoners, which RSF and IFJ have asked for. How far such changes will go to benefitting the Iranian people only time will tell.
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.