Two Iranian presidential candidates on Wednesday criticised broad restrictions imposed on the press in the Islamic republic, asking for more freedom in this domain where unfavourable reporting against the regime could lead to punishment.
“They ban newspapers, prevent a book from being published or ban a film. These are things that must be corrected,” Mohammad Reza Aref, the sole reformist candidate among eight hopefuls seeking to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 14 election, said during a televised debate.
“If we want to fight against corruption, there must be freedom of the press and media. People should have their hands freed,” added cleric Hassan Rowhani, a moderate candidate.
Iran’s hardline press watchdog has banned several publications, mostly reformist journals, for breaching its strict regulations since Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election.
The media are closely watched in Iran, with the authorities regularly warning against the publication of “negative” information, especially in the economic and social fields.
Iran’s culture ministry warned the press in July against publishing reports on the impact of harsh Western sanctions, and Tehran’s chief prosecutor issued a warning in September against “bleak” reporting on the situation in Iran.
In March 2013, reports of arrests of journalists in Iran raised alarm, with the United Nations’ monitor for human rights in Iran saying the detentions were part of a pattern of increasing crackdown ahead of the presidential election.
The June 14 presidential election is the first since the 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad sparked massive, unprecedented anti-regime protests that were brutally crushed by the regime.
Those protests were followed by a rise in the arrest of journalists in Iran. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 45 journalists were in Iranian prisons at the start of December 2012.
During the debate on Wednesday, however, conservative candidate Saeed Jalili dismissed the criticism against lack of press freedom in Iran.
“Just because two newspapers belonging to a political movement are shut down, we cannot say that there is no freedom,” said Jalili, alluding to the closure of reformist papers in recent years.
Jalili, a close figure to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, represents Iran in nuclear negotiations with world powers over Tehran’s controversial atomic drive.
Iranian authorities also routinely monitor and restrict the activities of the few journalists working for foreign media in Iran, who need accreditation from the culture ministry to operate in the Islamic republic.
Aref, a university professor, criticised what he called a “security atmosphere” in universities. He did not elaborate, and his remarks were rebutted by Jalili.
Aref, furthermore, slammed restrictions in universities where “students are prevented from having extracurricular activities, or are expelled because of (anti-regime) criticism”.
He also questioned the effectiveness of a campaign against satellite dishes, banned but verboten in Iran, saying the move was putting restrictions on Iranians from connecting to the outside world.
Rowhani, also criticising the measure, said it constituted to “a violation of privacy” of the people.
While vowing to prioritise on cyberspace to protect Iran from foreign attacks, Aref slammed the regime’s crackdown on the Internet, while speaking against the spread of “immoral” content online.
“Lowering the bandwidth (of the Internet) and filtering are not methods that guarantee success,” he said referring to the systematic filtering of millions of websites, including social networks.
Iran has tightened its control of the Internet since early March, with media and users bemoaning slow speeds, intermittent breakdowns and widespread restrictions.
His remarks on filtering were echoed by candidate Ali Akbar Velayati, a conservative who served as foreign minister for 16 years until late 90s.
“It is true that we face a cultural invasion, but the remedy is not found in filtering,” he said. “We should move to pre-empt it by strengthening the values and morals of Islam and Iran within the society.”
Jalili, however, defended the crackdown on satellite dishes, claiming there were “a hundred satellite channels created by the enemy” to confront Iran’s Islamic values, in a reference to Western countries.