Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Iran’s latest coup d’etat did not use guns, but silence. Faced with rising dissent and the prospect of reformists winning more seats in parliament, the country’s hard-line mullahs gagged opponents, shut down public debate, and perhaps most important, silenced national media from reporting the facts. Until that silence is broken, people in Iran and around the world will pay the price.

The coup began with February’s elections to the nation’s parliament, whose incumbent reformist majority, with President Mohammad Khatami, had challenged the hard-liners’ control. But under the pseudo-democratic constitution, only candidates approved by the country’s repressive Guardian Council could be on the ballot. In January, the council barred thousands of reformists, including more than 80 incumbent lawmakers. After a three-week sit-in, 125 lawmakers resigned in protest, and reform parties urged people not to participate in the farcical balloting. The unsurprising result put hard-liners in control, despite low voter turnout and many blank ballots.

If more than a quarter of the members of the U.S. Congress staged a three-week sit-in on the floor of the Capitol, and then resigned their seats, you can bet American TV coverage would be 24-7. Not in Iran. As world media reported the deepening crisis, official news sources, including the country’s only domestic television sources, stood mute.

Iran’s official TV news channel, Voice and Vision, imposed a near-blackout on the MPs’ sit-in, and even censored President Khatami’s own statements, over protests from his office.

There is, in fact, nothing new about the regime’s effort to control information. The Islamic Republic of Iran has consistently restricted the information that reaches the public. There is only one official TV broadcaster, although many Iranians risk owning banned satellite dishes to pick up international TV broadcasts. Newspapers must be licensed by the government, which has shut down scores.

Computer-savvy Iranians have turn to the Internet for news; but Internet service providers need government permission to operate, and there is an extensive official blacklist of banned international news sites. After the February elections, even more Web sites were threatened.

This heavy hand is meant to intimidate and control, but brave journalists continue working. There can be harsh consequences. In a special “Press Court,” scores of editors and reporters have been tried and sentenced to jail and even floggings for such crimes as “promoting subjects that might damage the foundation of the Islamic Republic.”

As 2004 began, 10 journalists were known to be imprisoned, including respected investigative journalist Akbar Gandji, and the ailing, 74-year-old, Siamak Pourzand, held in solitary confinement and reportedly tortured.

Today, new trials are scheduled for journalists who tried to report on the election crisis.

The hard-liners also employ the threat of violence: Militia thugs break up public meetings to silence speakers they oppose, from reform candidates to Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. Journalists have also been targets of extrajudicial killings. The case of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, murdered last summer by an Iranian intelligence agent, made international news.

What’s lost when people lose free speech and a free press? Plenty. Without credible news sources, Iranians can’t get the information they need about economic issues like lagging per capita income and corruption; or education, health, and environmental problems; or the fatal unreadiness to respond to catastrophes like the Bam earthquake.

Nor can Iranians get straight answers about their government’s military and foreign policies: the extent of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, Iran’s support for terrorism; and the worldwide concern these have engendered. Without information — without genuine democratic controls — Iran’s secret programs will continue posing a security threat to the U.S. and the Free World.

It is a testament to the Iranian people’s love for freedom that, despite the hurdles, they continue to reach for truth, for democracy, for open relations with the world.

In a public-opinion poll sponsored in late 2002 by members of parliament, 75 percent of Iranians supported dialogue with the U.S., and almost half approved of U.S. policy toward their country. The authorities responded by jailing the pollsters.

The Iranian regime’s tools of silence speak volumes about the nature of its rule. But Iranians, like captured peoples before them, are trying to search out the information they need.

They deserve our help and are getting it. U.S. broadcasting to Iran includes Radio Farda — “tomorrow,” in Iran’s Farsi language — and, beginning last July, the daily News and Views televised credible news about issues concerning Iranians.

News and Views reaches millions of Farsi-speaking Iranians who aren’t fluent in English, and thus can’t benefit from global broadcasts like CNN. And, unlike global broadcasts, News and Views focuses on Iran, permitting real depth of coverage. The program is on the air one half-hour daily.

But News and Views could do more; it could cover even more voices and issues, interview more experts on democracy from the U.S. and other free nations, and increase its dialogue with and among the Iranian people.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” said Thomas Jefferson. He went on to explain why.

If ever people lose their knowledge of and involvement in public affairs, then all the officials of government — “Congress & Assemblies, judges & governors, shall all become wolves.”

Today, the Iranian people try to keep their country from the wolves of injustice, repression and corruption. They will not succeed until all Iranians have access to real news and views.

Seth Cropsey is director of the U.S. Government International Broadcasting Bureau.

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