There's no question about the biggest winner in last week's Iranian elections: the Iranian press. It's wild. It's irreverent. It's brutal and amusing, and unabashedly partisan. It's constantly under pressure, its editors are sued and jailed, it's being shut down all the time--and it just keeps going.
In a nation where political parties are only beginning to take shape, Iran's newspapers have become the signposts guiding people through the fields of candidates. In Tehran alone, there are at least 35 newspapers published every day, all pushing their own line, whether liberal or conservative, reformist or radical. "We're a hero-making factory," says Hamidreza Jalaei Pour, editor of the reformist Asr-Azadegan (Time of the Free). "And we are free. Really, we are free. But--" he reflects a moment--"we are unsettled."
In another country, in fact, outspoken editors like Jalaei Pour might consider themselves downright persecuted. When religious conservatives allied to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are targeted by columns in Asr-Azadegan and other liberal papers that back reformist President Mohammed Khatami, they react ferociously: with lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and worse. But the most famous, or notorious, journalists in Tehran seem to see this as an exhilarating game.
"The threats are not inconspicuous," says liberal Islamic columnist Emmadedin Baghi. "The conservatives say in their newspapers that this guy is writing these nasty articles because righteous people have somehow let him live." Baghi wrote a column saying that the death penalty ought to be abolished. This didn't suit the Supreme Leader, who said anti-death-penalty advocates are heretics. The next day another ayatollah said that heretics can be killed on the spot, without benefit of trial. But Baghi is not too worried. He knows the political consequences for the conservatives would be disastrous if he were killed, and he thinks they know that, too. "At this point, even if I die of natural causes, people will say I was murdered," says Baghi with a broad smile.
The conservative-controlled courts often close papers down. But almost as often, the same papers reopen under different names. "Let's see," says Jalaei Pour, counting on his fingers. "I started Jamea [Society] in February 1998. We published 120 issues before we were shut down. After that, Toos [named for the birthplace of the poet Ferdowsi] published 45 issues. When they shut down Toos forever, I went to prison for one month. Then there was Neshat [Joy]. We published 145 issues. Then we started two papers: Akhbar Eghtesadi [Economic News] and after a month we published Asr-Azadegan, which is very political."
How, exactly, is this possible? The method is typical of the way Iranian liberals have found ways to use good laws to get around bad ones. Newspapers have to have licenses. Knowing what would happen to liberal publications, Khatami's deputy culture minister in charge of the press issued more than 100 newspaper licenses in the first few months he was in office. Thus, every time a paper is closed, all its editor has to do is find someone with an unused license. And some editors stockpile them. "I've got another," says Jalaei Pour, "right here in the drawer."