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Iran: Disputed Elections – the Media Faces a Challenge


26 February 2016

By Amir Taheri

In just three weeks' time Iranians will be invited to go to the polls to elect the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis) and the Assembly of Experts, two organs designed to give the Islamic Republic a democratic façade.

The media have always faced the problem of how to cover these elections without compromising the ethics of journalism. ''Elections in the Islamic Republic are different from elections anywhere else in the world,'' writes the daily Etemad. ''The point of our elections is to renew the people's loyalty to the existing Islamic order and the Supreme Guide.''

Covering such an exercise should be easy, especially when much of the media in Iran is directly owned or indirectly controlled by various organs of the state including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or powerful ayatollahs and retired generals benefiting from government subsidies.

And, yet, every time there is an election the authorities run into trouble with at least part of the media and that is because journalists, even in despotic regimes, cannot resist the temptation of running a good story. Thus, every election in Iran is also a season to arrest journalists. And this time is no exception. Among journalists who were arrested are such veterans as Issa Saharkhiz and Ehsan Mazandarani who have spent almost as long in Islamic prisons as in editorial offices in recent years. But there are also first-timers such as Afarin Chitsaz, Yunes Dahmardi, Saman Safarzai and Farnaz Pourmoradi. Also arrested last week were veteran reporters Maytham Muhammadi and Bahman Dar Al-Shafa'i, although they have not been active recently.

At the time of writing this, 45 Iranian journalists and 87 bloggers are in jail, making the Islamic Republic world number-one in press repression. The anti-media crackdown is designed to act as a warning to all journalists not to cast any doubt on the authenticity of the elections or question its necessity.

Tehran's Islamic Prosecutor Ali Jaafari highlighted the vagueness of the reasons behind the crackdown in his original way. ''Journalists are free to publish whatever they like,'' he said. ''What we do not allow, however, is the publication of untrue reports. Those who write untrue reports will go to prison.''

The question is: who decides what is true or untrue? And, in any case, shouldn't punishment for an ''untrue report'' be a denial not a prison term? There is no doubt that elections in Iran are something special. To start with, all those who wish to stand for elections must pass through several filters before they are officially approved. Even then, the approved candidates are not allowed to campaign as they wish but must act according to strict rules during a campaigning space limited to two weeks. Even once the elections are over the results must be valid by the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution, a 12-man mullah-controlled organ that could turn a winner into a loser and vice versa. Needless to say, the ''Supreme Guide'' could overturn the council's decision.

''We won't allow critics of our system to stand for elections, ''the Supreme Guide'' Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last month. '' But we do allow them to vote as individuals for any of the approved candidates.'' Because Khamenei regards every election as a plebiscite for himself, he is deeply concerned about the voters' turnout. The last presidential elections which led to Hassan Rouhani's victory produced the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic. Then, Rouhani was elected with the lowest percentage of votes, a fact that has been used by his critics to question his legitimacy.

Thus, the authorities are pulling every stunt this time to ensure a higher turnout. Their first move was to revise the number of those qualified to vote from 55 to 51 million despite the fact that the Interior Ministry, which organizes the elections, had officially declared the higher figure. When some newspapers pointed this out, the Islamic Prosecutor came out with his warning about ''untrue stories.''

However, prior to the clampdown, several Tehran papers, using figures based on the latest official census, reported that the Iranian electorate is slightly over 55 million. Thus, the government's insistence on promoting a lower figure indicates its fear of a low turnout.

The Prosecutor was also angry when some reporters published stories showing that the number of candidates competing for seats in the Assembly of Experts is the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic. The assembly is important because, in theory at least, it can dismiss and choose the ''Supreme Guide.''

The truth is that this time only 166 men have been approved as candidates for the 88 seats of the assembly, the lowest number ever. In the last election for the assembly, 164 candidates stood for 82 seats. In at least six constituencies, only one candidate is approved for one seat, meaning there would be no contest.

A small dose of dram was injected into the show with the disqualification of Hassan, a grandson of the late Ayatollah Khomeini who founded the Islamic republic. The faction led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani had tried to promote the young Hassan as ''the hope for the future'' and even published posters that described him as ''Grand Ayatollah'' or even ''Allameh'' (Grand Scholar). In the end he was disqualified because he did not attend a written examination of his knowledge of Islam. Of course, Khamenei could reinstate Hassan's candidacy as a favour. But that would puncture the young man's clerical pretensions.

Part of the election's credibility of the whole elections saga was lost when the authorities decided to disqualify almost 99 per cent of those filling application forms for candidacy. In at least 40 cases, the rejected applicants were mullahs employed by the government itself as Friday prayer leaders. In an original exercise in irony, the authorities used Article 38 of the Election Law to justify their disqualification. It states that ''An applicant can be disqualified on the grounds of lack of commitment to Islam.''

In other words, at least 40 Iranian towns have Friday prayer leaders who are not committed to Islam. By any standards, this is an interesting story. But Iranian journalists who report this could go to jail.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York. 

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