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Wednesday, July 7, 1999 Published at 21:58 GMT 22:58 UK

World: Middle East

Iran closes down newspaper

Conservatives say new law will prevent abuses of press freedom

Iran has suspended a leading moderate newspaper on the same day that the parliament passed the first reading of a sweeping new law which has been strongly criticised by moderates as a move to curtail press freedom.

A court ordered Salam, one of the main newspapers backing President Mohammad Khatami, to cease publication after a complaint from the Intelligence Ministry over the printing of a secret ministry report about an alleged hardline plot to muzzle the country's pro-reform press.

The ministry accused Salam of "confusing public opinion" by publishing selected parts of the memo, along with allegedly misleading headlines, a court statement said.

The publication ban will remain in force until a final ruling is issued by the court, the statement added. A Salam journalist earlier told reporters that police had arrested the newspaper's night editor, Morad Raisi.

'Plotting against the system'

[ image: Nateq-Nouri:
Nateq-Nouri: "Press is a gateway for cultura invasion"
The new law, set to be adopted after a detailed examination by parliament in the next few days, would give Iran's hardline Islamic revolutionary courts jurisdiction over "national security-related" press offences, rather than referring such cases to press courts as in the past.

"The press is a gateway for cultural invasion, so let us take measures," conservative parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri said during debate on the bill, which was passed by 125 votes to 90 with 55 deputies absent.

"Some people, under the pretext of press freedom, are plotting against the system," he said.

Mr Nateq-Nuri said the aim of the law was to prevent the abuse of freedom in the press.

Reform agenda

The measure was denounced by top moderates including liberal Culture Minister Ayatollah Mohajerani, a staunch ally of President Mohammad Khatami, who has put increased press freedom at the heart of his reform agenda.

"Freedom can not be repressed by any law," Mohajerani told the parliament. "We have to create laws in accordance with freedom, not freedom according to our laws."

[ image: President Khatami's reforming spirit is under threat]
President Khatami's reforming spirit is under threat
President Khatami and his entire cabinet stated their opposition to the law last week.

Editors from a dozen newspapers said in a joint statement Tuesday that the bill would pave the way for "restrictions on the press, practically no job security for the country's journalists and preliminary steps for closure of various press institutions."

Mounting pressure

Although Iran's moderate press has enjoyed considerable freedom since President Khatami's election in 1997, it has come under mounting pressure from hardliners within the regime in recent months.

Two journalists were arrested last month, on charges of spreading anti-Islamic propaganda. Their newspaper, Hoveyat-e-Khish, was banned because of its attacks on clerical hardliners.

The BBC's Jim Muir: The hardliners had an easy majority
In February a revolutionary court closed down the Zan newspaper after it published a new year's message from Farah Diba, the former empress and wife of the deposed Shah.

The press crackdown comes ahead of next spring's key parliamentary elections, seen as crucial for the country's conservatives after they were solidly defeated this February in Iran's first municipal elections since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

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