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Saturday, 21 October, 2000, 18:21 GMT 19:21 UK
'Moderate' paper faces Iranian court
Hambastegi office
Hambastegi is trying a softer approach
By Andrew North in Tehran

The reformist Iranian newspaper, Hambastegi, says its managing director, Gholam-Heidar Ebrahimbai-Salami, has been summoned to appear before the country's Press Court on Sunday.

The paper did not give any details of the summons, or say whether an official complaint had yet been filed.

The new daily newspaper was launched in Iran earlier this month, although many Iranians could be forgiven if they had not noticed.

There was no pre-launch advertising blitz, not even a promotional party to publicise the first edition; only a few posters pasted up on some major junctions in Tehran.

But the apparent shyness of this new paper is perhaps not so surprising - Hambastegi, or 'Solidarity' is an advocate for reform.

It is reformist...but moderate reformist

Hambastegi journalist
And the closure of more than 20 pro-reform newspapers by conservative-controlled courts earlier this year has effectively silenced Iran's nascent liberal press.

Despite domestic and international criticism, publishers have been powerless to overturn the crackdown, and many prominent editors and journalists remain in jail.

Important voice

Hambastegi's publishers are worried they face the same fate, but say it is important that they try to publish, as the print media serves as a key voice for reformists.

Iranian women playing table football
The paper is aimed at a younger readership
The demand for alternative views in a country where the conservative establishment dominates the media is clearly there.

Despite its low-profile launch, Hambastegi is already selling some 100,000 copies, particularly among younger people who lapped up the vocal, often brash style of its banned predecessors.

However there are differences; gone are the outspoken attacks on key figures in the conservative establishment or calls for root and branch change.

Hambastegi is "more conservative and not like the other newspapers, the previous newspapers," one of the paper's writers told BBC News Online.

"It is reformist, but moderate reformist."

The paper is sponsored by the Islamic Iran Participation Front, part of the broad grouping that backs Iran's reformist President, Mohammad Khatami.

Legal concerns

Another pro-reform paper, Aftab-e Yazd, which appeared in late-August, also appears to be doing well.

banned Iranian pro-reform papers
A series of pro-reform papers have been closed this year
But talk of a revival in the country's liberal press is premature, according to Iranian analysts.

The courts can still draw on a multitude of laws to close down these new papers, and reformist efforts in the Iranian Parliament to overturn some of press restrictions collapsed in August.

Concerns about its legal situation have forced Hambastegi to delay its launch several times.

And after three editions, the courts have already received 27 complaints about the paper's contents.

"We think it is possible that the director will be summoned to court...we could be closed down any time," admitted a senior editor.

Raised expectation

Commentators say many Iranians are disillusioned that a new liberal era heralded by the pro-reform newspapers has failed to emerge.

President Mohammad Khatami
Popular support for President Khatami remains strong
There are also fears that the conservative backlash against the popular liberal press has damaged the reform movement.

"The reformist newspapers raised people's expectations to a level that could not be realised in a short period of time," said one Iranian public opinion analyst.

But according to a Tehran-based public opinion expert, popular support for the pro-reform parties remains strong, and the liberal press has a wide readership.

"These people have not disappeared, they are still learning the facts [and] are still forming their opinions and judgements," he said.

"And I think what they judge is destructive to the conservatives in the long run."

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See also:

04 Oct 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Iran
19 Aug 00 | Middle East
New Iran newspaper ban
20 Aug 00 | Middle East
Iran police face campus ban
05 Aug 00 | Middle East
Iranian reformer arrested
13 Aug 00 | Middle East
Iranian MPs pledge to continue reform
08 Aug 00 | Media reports
Iranian press back Ayatollah's intervention
24 Apr 00 | Middle East
Iran's liberal press muzzled
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