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Analysis: Iran government suffers defeat as Majlis refuses to rush media bill

BBC Monitoring

By Saeed Barzin of BBC Monitoring on 23 September

The Iranian government suffered a defeat at the Majlis parliament on Sunday 23 September when it failed to rush through a bill which critics say aims to limit press freedoms.

The bill had asked the conservative-controlled Majlis to discuss amendments to the press law as a matter of "double urgency". But the Majlis not only voted against the request, it even voted against a subsequent government request to discuss the bill as a matter of "single urgency".

However, the threat against press freedoms continues as now the Majlis will study the bill through normal procedure.

Parliamentary elections Government critics say the cabinet of President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad is aiming to curb the media before the next Majlis elections in March 2008.

"In view of the previous practice, the decision [to amend the press law] aims to further limit the media during the elections," a pro-reform Majlis deputy, Soheyla Jelodarzadeh said. (ISNA, 17 Sep)

The government is repeatedly accused of imposing restrictions on the activities of the media as more news outlets are forced to shut down. In the past few months, two popular pro-reform newspapers, one pro-reform news agency and one conservative web site have stopped work under government pressure.

Despite the restrictions, the media in Iran have expanded rapidly in the past 10 years. In the early 1990s political debate in the press was limited but today some politically sensitive issues are debated in newspaper and semi-official websites. However, reformists say more open debate is necessary.

The bill which the government was hoping to rush through the Majlis on Sunday aimed to "regulate" the activities of news agencies and websites.

Critics say the! regulation will even allow the government to ban personal blogs.

Majlis debate The government request to rush though the bill was defeated in two consecutive votes with clear majorities.

In the first vote for a "double urgency" tag, 94 deputies were against and 68 for the government request, while 31 abstained. A second vote for a "single urgency" tag was also defeated with a similar majority. (Fars, 23 Sep)

Introducing the bill, Vice-President Ahmad Musavi said the existing press law failed to take into account the status of the electronic media. (ISNA, 23 Sep)

The ratification of the bill would allow the press law to apply to all news agencies and Internet platforms in terms of their rights, obligations, legal status and offences, he said.

Speaking against the bill, Deputy Bizhan Shahbaz-Khani said the "bill means supervising 70 million Iranians because every person could have a news Internet platform".

"You can not rush through a bill which threatens the rights of the nation," he said.

Another opponent, Deputy Emad Afrugh, said the bill intended to increase supervision of news agencies, and that it should be referred ! to the Majlis Committee on Cultural Affairs for further study.

Speaking in defence of the bill, Deputy Hasan Kamran said it was necessary to further regulate the media and "remove ambiguities". Another deputy, Mohammad Hoseyn Farhangi, said there was nothing in the bill which prevented the "war against corruption".

Background Iran's press law sets the framework and the official limits of media freedoms in Iran.

The country's Union of Journalists has on many occasions criticized the law but said it was prepared to work within its framework.

Some journalists accuse the current conservative-controlled Majlis of trying to impose further restrictions on the media.

The previous Majlis - which had a pro-reform majority abandoned an effort to liberalize the press law after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i expressed his opposition.

In January 2007, the Guidance Ministry which supervises the media failed to implement a policy obliging all website managers and bloggers to register their sites with a state agency.

Recently the Union of Journalists issued a statement complaining that the pressure of newspapers and other forms of mass communication was on the rise.

It said: "The expectations that the Guidance Ministry has of newspaper editors is authoritarian and goes over and above regulations." (emruz.biz)

"Newspapers are ordered to write, or! not to write, about certain issues. They are even told how to treat minor issues or use certain phrases or arguments."

The union said that the orders come from the Secretariat of the National Security Council while the law only requires the implementation of directives ratified by the council.

The bill The following is the text of the bill that the government is hoping to ratify. "Clause Four [to Article One of the Press Law Amendment Bill]: Domestic news agencies and Internet news platforms - in terms of rights, obligations, legal support, offences, punishments, the prosecuting authority and the manner of prosecution come under this [Press] Law and its amendments.

- The managing directors, managers, writers and those who prepare reports for news agencies and [Internet] news platforms have - according to each case the same responsibilities as those required of the managing editors and writers of the press.

- The News Agency Supervisory Board has the same authority and duties towards news agencies that the Press Supervisory Board has towards the press.

- The administrative regulations of this clause which will also specify [the nature of] electronic publications and news agencies will be ratified within three months by the cabinet upon the suggestions of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance." (ISNA, 23 Sep)

Source: BBC Monitoring research 23 Sep 07



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