Iranian Hard-liners close down reformist newspapers

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Iranians searched street kiosks in vain for their favourite newspapers after hard-liners opposed to presidential reforms closed down 14 pro-democracy publications in a media crackdown that saw two journalists jailed in the past three days.

The move is an immense blow to the popular President Mohammad Khatami by Islamic hard-liners who want to choke his social and political reforms in a bid to preserve their own power. It also reflects the tremendous power the hard-liners still wield despite their crushing defeat against Khatami's allies in recent legislative elections.

The hard-liners control key institutions like the military, the broadcast network and the judiciary, their most powerful instrument in the power struggle against a huge movement for change that has been snowballing since Khatami's 1997 election.

"The power struggle in Iran is entering dire straits," said Saeed Leylaz, an analyst and writer for several reformist newspapers. "The press has been the main instrument for Khatami to speak to the people, and if that is taken away from him he is in serious trouble," said Leylaz.

Khatami spoke in public to mark Armed Forces Day, but he made no mention of the closures or the future of his reforms.

Ten major daily newspapers and four weekly or biweekly magazines were closed down by order of the hard-line judiciary in Tehran late Sunday and Monday, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Editors said the ban was illegal, but that they were powerless to oppose it.

Judiciary statements quoted by IRNA said the publications were closed for "printing material against the lofty Islamic principles and commands."

Only two reformist newspapers - Mosharekat and Bayan - escaped the ban. It was not clear why they were not included. Azad, which was banned, was on sale Monday, because the daily already had gone to print before the ban. It is unlikely to appear Tuesday.

Newspaper vendors said they had to order extra copies of the popular Sobh-e-Emrouz daily, which was banned Monday, because readers were snapping it up. The mood among Iranians heading to work Monday was normal and there was no sign of unusual security measures on the streets of the capital, Tehran.

"Khatami is still strong and very popular among the people, but now he is handicapped without his main pillars of support," said Hossein Qaragozlu, a shopkeeper who was buying newspapers at a street kiosk. "It's hard to say what will happen next," said Qaragozlu, a Khatami supporter.

Religious schools around the country were ordered to close by hard-liners to protest a recent conference in Berlin, Germany, that was attended by several reformist journalists.

Hard-liners were outraged after selected footage from the conference was aired last week on state television, showing Iranian exiles critising Iran's religious government and a woman dancing in a skimpy outfit. In Iran, women must adhere to a strict Islamic dress code.

The hard-liners, who have ruled by decree since the 1979 Islamic revolution, have been losing popularity against a barrage of newspaper criticism against their heavy handed policies. The newspapers had turned Khatami, who speaks of democracy and the rule of law, into a national hero.

The closures came three days after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the hard-line supreme leader whose powers supersede those of the elected president, said there were 10 to 15 reformist papers undermining Islamic and revolutionary principles, insulting constitutional bodies and creating tension and discord in society.

On Sunday, police seized Latif Safari, director of the banned Neshat daily, and took him to Tehran's Evin prison, a day after detaining Akbar Ganji, the nation's top investigative reporter.

Earlier this month, the judiciary upheld the conviction of Mahmoud Shams, editor in chief of Asr-e-Azadegan, giving him a 2 1/2-year jail term on charges of "insulting religious sanctities." Shams has been a leading voice for press freedom.

In March, Saeed Hajjarian, another leading journalist, was shot in the face and gravely wounded. Reformist newspapers and officials have blamed the attack on hard-liners.

Nearly every leading reformist journalist has been summoned for questioning by the judiciary, which is controlled by the hard-liners.

Last week, the outgoing Parliament that is dominated by hard-liners tightened an existing press law, granting greater powers of prosecution against both writers and publishers. The changes have to be endorsed by the hard-line Guardian Council, but that is likely a formality.