TEHRAN, Iran — Isa Saharkhiz is a prominent Iranian journalist and one of the founders of the Press Freedom Defense Association in Iran. At the beginning of the presidency of Reformist Mohammad Khatami in 1997, he was in charge of domestic publications within the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, an era which Iranian media experienced unprecedented press freedoms and growth. However, in 1999 there was a backlash by conservatives that resulted in the banning of many newspapers. Saharkhiz eventually resigned as a result of the crackdown.
He later founded a daily, Akhbar-e Eghtesad (Economic News). After the controversial elections of 2009, he was arrested and sentenced to prison. This past September he was released after having served his prison time. In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, he talks about the challenges faced by the new administration, how he sees the future of journalism and the importance of civil institutions as the administration focuses on economic growth.
Al-Monitor: The most recent development is Mehdi Karroubi being returned to his own house — after having been under house arrest in a Ministry of Intelligence safe house — which will evidently improve his condition. Does this mean that Rouhani has managed to convince the other sections of the government to allow him fulfill one of his campaign promises? Do you see this as a victory for his administration?
Saharkhiz: I believe that Rouhani’s administration has done its part. However, in cases of imprisonment and house arrests, their efforts have been so far unsuccessful. What happened with Karroubi should have happened months ago. There was no reason to remove him from his own house [in the first place] and make a lot of expenses for his family and keep him in a condition that has worsened his illness. I believe that Karroubi’s constant illnesses, especially osteoporosis, which was caused by the lack of exposure to sunlight and surgeries they had to perform on him were the reasons why he was finally moved back to his home. These reasons were more important than a possible political deal between the administration and the judiciary or security organizations.
Al-Monitor: Do you believe that the administration is trying to fulfill its other campaign promises? Do you think that the minister of culture and Islamic guidance is trying to fulfill the promises made regarding the press?
Saharkhiz: The administration is working hard. Of course, the priority is with the nuclear negotiations and foreign relations. The administration is focusing on these issues with the hope of curbing the negative effects of the sanctions, increasing the oil revenues that will naturally increase the government’s budget, decreasing the deficit and finally improving the economy and people’s living conditions. If he can improve the foreign relations, then the possible outcomes could be the removal or the reduction of sanctions. This leads to more investment opportunities that will result in more employment opportunities and improve those industries currently operating at a very limited level. Foreign policy is the first priority for this administration. Cultural and political progress is the next step. It is natural that Rouhani is putting all his effort and energy into solving this issue. However, the ministers, especially the minister of culture and Islamic guidance, have also tried to improve things. For example, through the Press Supervisory Board, they have issued licenses for several publications, although they were unsuccessful in obtaining a license for the two newspapers Neshat and Ham-Mihan and other political publications with ties to the Reformist movement. They have also tried to obtain the license that would allow both the Islamic Iran Participation Front [one of the main Reformist political groups] and the Mujahedeen of the Islamic Revolution Organization, to once again operate as legal parties in the country. Basically, the administration is slowly trying to achieve its political and cultural objectives. However, what was promised to people before the elections was much greater than what is actually happening. The promises made were greater and people’s demands are also more substantial than what the administration has managed to achieve in the past six months.
Al-Monitor: A large number of officials in this new administration have backgrounds in intelligence and counterintelligence sectors. Do you believe that this administration considers the people of Iran its allies or is it only trying to impress and satisfy the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], or the judiciary or other organizations so that that they would not oppose it and prevent it from doing its work?
Saharkhiz: As you mentioned, Rouhani and his team have been active behind the scenes for many years. They have tried to achieve their goals calmly and slowly and without creating tension in society, which would have benefited the radical groups. Naturally, right now, Rouhani’s goal is not to upset the supreme leader since, as you know, if that happens, the radicals will use it as an opportunity to further their own agenda. They will use Ayatollah Khamenei’s dissatisfaction as a starting point and will aggravate their pressure on Rouhani. They could even go as far as architecting his downfall before his term is up.
Al-Monitor: As someone who is keen on the idea of civil society and independent press, are you worried that a Chinese-style growth will happen in Iran, meaning that the economy will flourish, the country will become part of the world economy, but issues such as human rights, civil society and freedom of speech, stay the same?
Saharkhiz: Yes, the danger exists since Iran’s social infrastructures are not like those of China. During the past eight years, the security and intelligence organizations have been actively participating in Iran’s economy. Consequently, the private sector has weakened and is not in a good shape. I think that if Rouhani emphasizes social and political reforms right now, he will fail the economy. The security and the intelligence sectors can control the country’s economic pulse and prevent Rouhani from reaching his goals. Naturally, when a society lacks civil institutions, it will be devoid of nongovernmental trade associations and unions. If there are no private organizations and associations and if there is no free press to act as a watchdog, the corruption that exists right now will emerge even stronger. In fact, even if the administration is successful in eradicating the cancer that currently engulfs the country, the corruption will still continue and increase. It is obvious that a coordinated and balanced growth will benefit society. Just as you mentioned in your previous question, Rouhani needs to lean on people and civil organizations more than anything else, especially given the fact that during the previous elections, he was not associated with any party or organization himself. He became the only possible choice for the Reformists so they supported him and right now, he continues to have their support. However, if he disappoints them, they might become neutral or even start opposing him. The totalitarian movement that wants to take over the government starts by creating problems for Rouhani and his administration, and then when the time is ripe, they will strike the fatal blow.
Al-Monitor: For the past 15 years, the independent journalists have worked nonstop to make sure that the independent press continues to exist. At the same time, the totalitarian movement has increased the pressure, has shut down newspapers and has imprisoned journalists. What do you think will be the outcome of this struggle? Can we say that we have witnessed a move forward regardless of all the crackdowns? For example, has there been any progress since [former President Mohammad] Khatami left office or has there been a regression during the eight years of [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s presidency?
Saharkhiz: If we are to talk about the press, we can no longer only limit ourselves to the journalism done inside Iran. After the events of the year 2009, the group that suffered the most, officially and unofficially, were the journalists working inside Iran. For a while, we had the highest number of imprisoned journalists and bloggers. Even now, some of our notable journalists are imprisoned or have lost their jobs and many more have left the country or have decided to suspend their activities. Some of those who left the country started working for the foreign media. This is why the Ministry of Intelligence and the security organizations are putting a lot of pressure on the families of these journalists, hoping to prevent them from working outside Iran. Inside Iran, with much effort, the journalists have tried to keep journalism alive and recently we have had some progress. Of course, we are yet to return to what was called “Tehran Spring” in the first two years of Khatami’s presidency; in fact, we might never return to it. These pressures have forced our journalists to work on an international level, to establish themselves in the social networks, and also to learn and practice citizen journalism. It is true that citizen journalism is different from professional journalism, but at the end, they are both trying to reflect what is happening in society and expose what needs to be exposed so that the totalitarian movement cannot do as it wills without any opposition. In any case, I'm optimistic. I believe that journalism in Iran, similar to the rest of the world, is moving forward. It is an exciting profession. However, it is also a dangerous one, but this fact will attract more people to it and we might witness, in the long run, more qualitative and quantitative progress, although in the short run our journalists might be pressured and suffer.