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Iran’s Murder Minister gives Little Hope for Media Freedom

The honeymoon is over. Optimists believing Iran’s new leader, President Hassan Rouhani would deliver on loosening control of the media even minimally, are no longer so impressed.
In most countries that censor the media, authorities rely on two broad methods to accomplish their goals. The first is by censors, either aided by regulations or acting ad hoc, who control the content which finds its way into the public sphere. The other method is by coercing the producers of that content to publish or broadcast what the authorities like.
Following his election, the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) asked Rouhani to make good the pledge he made during his election campaign and release political prisoners – many of whom are bloggers and journalists. In other words, RSF’s target was those who had been coerced by the regime for producing anti-government material rather than censorship regulations that prohibited certain journalistic content. In its June 21 posting, this blog quoted RSF’s June 18 statement, “Your campaign promises included references to a desire to work for freedom of expression and media freedom, and the release of all political prisoners…”
But on August 8, RSF in a joint statement with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) and Human Rights Watch asked Rouhani to withdraw “immediately” his candidate for the minister of justice – Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi – because of strong allegation of human rights abuses during earlier stints in office. His earlier appointments included the post of interior minister during the first term of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and as deputy minister of espionage from 1990-1999.
In its statement RSF said, “Human Rights Watch, in a 2005 report, “Ministers of Murder,” documented Pour-Mohammadi’s direct role in the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners. In the summer of 1988, Pour-Mohammadi, then a top deputy to the intelligence minister, sat on a commission charged with interrogating thousands of political prisoners and ordering many of them to the gallows.”
“Instead of installing Pour-Mohammadi as justice minister, authorities should abide by their international obligations and investigate his role in committing egregious rights abuses and parliament should refuse to confirm him if the nomination goes forward,” RSF quoted Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of ICHRI as saying.
Although Rouhani was inducted as president only in August, he was elected on June 14 and the interim was not free of journalists’ arrests. On July 9, Faribah Pajoh was rearrested and in a statement by RSF said “she is now in solitary confinement in Evin prison’s Section 209, which is controlled by the intelligence ministry.” She is in poor health after her first imprisonment in 2009.
“Fariba Pajoh was arrested again arbitrarily, probably on the orders of one of her former jailers in the intelligence ministry and clearly without any legal grounds,” RSF quoted Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi.
Meanwhile, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported on July 16 that seven Iranian journalists of the website Majzooban-e-Noor were sentenced to a total 56 years in jail. The charges included, “forming the illegal Majzooban-e-Noor group with the intent to disrupt national security … propaganda against the state … insulting the Supreme Leader and participation in disrupting public order,” CPJ said.
“This is a worrisome trend coming so soon after the presidential elections,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator. “The Iranian government is squandering an opportunity to open a new chapter that renews the right of free expression.”
However, other commentators writing on Rouhani’s selection of his cabinet say he is constrained because he has to balance different political forces. The enduring streak in the Iranian president is his pragmatism and they see his sidelining of reformists as a way of balancing the different factions that came together to elect him. “‘Pleasing a single Iranian faction through cabinet nominations is a difficult enough task; pleasing all of them can be likened to completing a Rubik’s cube,’ said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel,” Reuters reported on August 5.
A less than comfortable aspect of the balancing different factions in the Rouhani cabinet is the pruning down the members of the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards of Iran (IGRC) that have traditionally played an important part in guiding the affairs of Iran. They have been ‘balanced’ by four members of the Ministry of intelligence and National Security (MOIS). Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi is one of them.
A relatively strong MOIS presence … is unprecedented. So is the sharp drop in IRGC presence. This shift could be a sign of increased struggle for power between the strongest security arms of the regime,” says Ali Alfoneh of the Washington-based Foundation for the Defence of Democracies.
In all this it is likely that media freedom will be the victim. The problem is with international concerns about Iran’s race for the nuclear weapons and its involvement in Syria, freedom of the media could end up get on the backburner.