Iran journalists say licensing conflicts with Rouhani’s stated policies

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401 Iranian journalists signed an open letter protesting a controversial plan to require journalists to be licensed through the Culture Ministry.

The letter, addressed to Culture Minister Ali Jannati, acknowledges some positive steps in favor of the media taken by the ministry. However, it said that other decisions by Deputy Minister for Press Affairs Hossein Entezami “are not only not in this framework, but an obstacle for these plans.”

The letter explained that Entezami’s “insistence on implementing the ‘journalist licensing,’ which in various eras — from before the revolution until today — has been pursued by those against freedom of speech,” creates an obstacle for the stated policies of President Hassan Rouhani.

The “journalist licensing” procedure would require journalists to periodically present their work to the Culture Ministry for evaluation of quality. Upon approval, the journalist can resume working. This gives the ministry control over which journalists can work and which cannot.

Most journalists believe that licensing for their profession should be conducted through the journalists guild, which, incidentally, was dissolved under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The journalists wrote that this licensing requirement conflicts with the two plans that the Rouhani administration said it would focus on: creating a two-way relationship between the administration and journalists and the importance of non-government organizations and guilds as the real representatives of the people.

While the Rouhani administration has made slight improvements in relations with the media, it has been locked in a battle with the judiciary over the forced closures of Reformist newspapers that tended to give him positive and sympathetic coverage. Both Aseman and Bahar were shuttered by the judiciary for appearing to criticize Islamic values.

On Saturday, at the closing of the 20th Press Festival, Rouhani lashed out against the judiciary for the newspaper closures.

“The administration believes that suspending a newspaper is the last resort, not the first,” Rouhani said. “There is no problem, if a writer makes a mistake, to confront him or the editor, but why is the first-step suspension? … Why the hurry?”

He continued, “Why is it that today, some [media entities] are free, and some have a small portion of freedom? Those opposed to the administration are free, but [we must] let those aligned with the administration have the same amount of freedom and security and to criticize, especially constructive criticism.”

Rouhani asked, “Why is the entire publication suspended, and why do individuals who work in other sections of the paper have to become unemployed for the mistake of one person?”

While Bahar was closed for an article on its front page about the nature of the leadership of the first Shia Imam, Imam Ali, by a well-known religious activist, the closing of Aseman just six issues after converting from a weekly to a daily shocked many. The damning Aseman article contained a single reference to a quote that called Islamic retribution laws visas “inhuman.” Some journalists in Iran believe that this piece only came to the attention of the judiciary after hard-line publications gave it their own extensive coverage.