In an interview via email with Al-Monitor, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a prominent reformist journalist shared his thoughts about President Hassan Rouhani’s promises on freedom of the press. Shamsolvaezin was the editor-in-chief and founder of several reformist dailies that were closed in a crackdown on the press between 1998 and 2000: the groundbreaking Kian, which was at one time at the forefront of intellectual and religious discourse in Iran, Jame'eh (later Tous), Neshat, and Asr-e Azadegan. He was imprisoned numerous times for his criticisms of government policies, the longest prison term being 2½ years spent in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. He is also a former recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) 2000 International Press Freedom award for courage and independence in reporting the news.
Al-Monitor: During his campaign, Hassan Rouhani repeatedly promised freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Based on this platform, he galvanized massive support from reformists and those in favor of change. In your opinion, how well has President Rouhani met the expectations of Iranian journalists?
Shamsolvaezin: During his campaign, Mr. Rouhani promised to reopen the Association of Iranian Journalists, which was shut down following the 2009 protests, but that has not occurred yet. The association is one of the largest of its kind. It has 4,000 members and is a member of the International Labor Organization and the International Federation of Journalists. This association does not have the permit to be active. Currently, Mr. Rouhani’s promise is stuck somewhere between three ministries: labor, intelligence and culture. Mr. Rouhani avoids confronting the judiciary and has left the journalists defenseless and destitute. Several weeks ago, 1,200 journalists wrote a letter to him, demanding that he would fulfill his campaign promises.
Al-Monitor: Rouhani’s platform is very different from Khatami’s. President [Mohammad] Khatami used a strategy known as the "pressure from the bottom, negotiations at the top," meaning that he wanted to use the strengthening of civil society and the fostering of freedom of speech as leverage against conservatives to win concessions. However, Rouhani’s platform involves reducing tensions and engaging the moderates and conservatives alike. Since Khatami’s strategy was a failure, he does not want to make the same mistake by antagonizing the conservatives. Instead, he wants to take small steps by making some concessions. Therefore, don’t you expect too much from Rouhani?
Shamsolvaezin: There is a significant difference between Mr. Khatami’s reformist platform and Mr. Rouhani’s; however, as six months has passed since the Rouhani administration’s takeover, there is a convergence between the two governments in the sense that both run the same branch of power, while nonelected bodies that are mostly conservative govern the other important and critical bases of power. Therefore, Iranian conservatives are not confronted with a complete transfer of power because whenever the reformists control the executive branch, the conservatives use the judiciary to put consistent pressure on the reformists. On the other hand, when the conservatives run the executive branch and consolidate their power, the judiciary’s power is undermined. This is the calculation that was pursued throughout the Khatami and [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad administrations and has continued into the Rouhani administration. Actually, the Iranian conservatives have succeeded in obtaining a good formula for maintaining their power permanently. It seems that the supreme leader has come to terms with this idea as well.
However, let’s not forget that President Rouhani’s priorities differ from Khatami’s in the sense that Khatami was after comprehensive development, particularly political reform. But Rouhani has had to address economic and foreign policy because of Ahmadinejad’s wrong policies in those areas that had led to crises. Still, these crises weigh heavily on Mr. Rouhani’s shoulders, so he cannot introduce his own favored model. Moreover, President Rouhani is neither prepared nor capable of going head-to-head with the conservatives. First, he understands their base of power very well. Second, he does not want to have Khatami’s fate. Finally, President Rouhani is well-positioned to confront the conservatives on two fronts: the economy and foreign policy. He knows well that he can defeat them in these key areas.
Al-Monitor: Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Mr. [Ali] Jannati, stated, “Shutting down the newspapers is out of our hands; therefore, I cannot comment on this issue.” If the judiciary is responsible for shutting down newspapers, what can Mr. Rouhani do to address this issue?
Shamsolvaezin: During Ahmadinejad’s administration, the executive branch used to shut down independent newspapers through a supervisory board. Since President Rouhani has assumed office, this duty has been turned over to the judiciary. However, this does not provide an excuse for the executive branch and the Ministry of Culture to wash their hands of this issue. The question is that if the executive branch cannot take back the freedom of the press from the judiciary, then how can the press stand up to the judiciary all alone? In fact, Iranian journalists have been at the very least under pressure from the conservatives. In the Rouhani administration, however, they are under pressure from the judiciary and the executive branches that have abandoned them, so they are left defenseless. When the Aseman newspaper was shut down, the Ministry of Culture did not even bother to issue a complaint. Where should Iranian journalists seek shelter?
Al-Monitor: Currently, Iran’s most important crisis is the nuclear program. If Mr. Rouhani insists on the freedom issue, wouldn’t that help reincarnate past tensions and even disrupt the negotiations?
Shamsolvaezin: I understand President’s Rouhani’s position. Reforming a country with an empty treasury amid sanctions and tensions with neighbors is not a simple task. Holding nuclear talks is no easy feat. But let’s not forget that even if certain issues are not the government’s priorities right now, they will become priorities because the people’s sense of serenity would require them to become practical priorities over time, including ending the house arrest of the leaders of the Green Movement, freeing political prisoners, restoring freedom of the press and ultimately harmonizing the state’s and the government’s decisions with regard to the constitution returning serenity to society. President Rouhani has a long way ahead despite his success in foreign policy and the economy. We are still hopeful. Based on our extensive experience, we are condemned to remain hopeful.