In a fresh attack on press freedom in Iran, Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani, the head of the judiciary, announced that journalists could face punishment for reporting corruption stories.
Larijani issued the warnings on October 12 at an event to mark the 33rd anniversary of the National General Inspectorate, an organization set up to ensure laws are appropriately implemented. He announced that he would be monitoring the press closely and that he would take legal action against journalists who covered cases involving ministers or high profile politicians. “I have ordered Tehran’s prosecutor-general to review all of them and stand against those who break the law,” he said. “If need be, he can issue summons.” His warnings also extended to certain MPs who had openly spoken about undetermined corruption cases.
Ayatollah Larijani’s warnings follow the publication of a number of articles in reformist newspapers, including Shargh, Aftab, Aban, Ebtekar and Etemad, which revealed that three cabinet ministers under former President Ahmadinejad were questioned over the case of Babak Zanjani, the 40-year old Iranian who made billions of dollars by helping the Islamic Republic bypass international sanctions. Zanjani later fell out with the authorities and was arrested in December 2013 on corruption charges.
It is not the first time that a high-level official has warned the media about its coverage of corruption cases. Recently, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, demanded that journalists stop reporting a $3 billion embezzlement case, which was widely covered in the national and international media. The case involved forged documents, which were used to obtain credit from Iranian banks, both state and private, in order to purchase state-owned companies. Fourteen Iranian banks and numerous high-ranking officials are thought to be implicated in the scandal.
The press, which is often referred to as the fourth pillar of democracy, is there to report on governmental activity and engender transparency on behalf of the public. Uprooting corruption is a key part of this.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Iran is a signatory, states that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
Article 24 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic recognizes freedom of the press, stating that: “Publications and the press have freedom of expression except where there is infringement of the basic tenets of Islam or public order.” Article 2 of Iran’s Press Law clarifies that one of the functions of the press is “to enlighten public opinion and increase its level of knowledge.” Article 4 specifies that “No government or non-government official should resort to coercive measures against the press when publishing an article or essay, or attempt to censure and control the press.”
Is it therefore an infringement of one of the basic tenets of Islam or of the public’s rights to report on the fact that three ministers from the previous administration were questioned about Babak Zanjani’s case? Do Larijani’s warnings directly contradict Article 4 of the press law, which forbids officials from “coercive measures against the press”?
IranWire spoke to three lawyers about the renewed threats to press freedom in Iran.
Rumors and False Reporting
“The Judiciary Chief’s comments have a political undertone,” says award-winning human rights lawyer Hossein Raeesi. “But there is legal justification for it in Iran’s penal code.” He says that although Article 188 of the Criminal Code of Procedure for Public and Revolutionary Courts accepts the principle of public and open trials, the Article does not specifically allow for the “publication of court proceedings or for the disclosure of names or details that reveal the identity of an individual, including mentioning a plaintiff or defendant’s job title, until the final verdict has been reached.” The Article also clearly states that “violating this is considered to be libelous.”
But Raeesi believes that when government officials are accused of corruption or other illegal activity, society has a right to know. “This way the impartiality of the judiciary on the one hand, and the seriousness of the trial on the other, will become clear to the people,” he says. If this information is available, it will be more difficult for false rumors to circulate. “People would be convinced that everyone is equal before the law. So long as names aren’t reported, reporting is not only not an offense but it’s vital in informing the people.”
A Tool for Control
“Larijani was appointed judiciary chief by the Supreme Leader, and based on the constitution of the Islamic Republic, it is directly responsible to him,” says human rights lawyer Mehri Jafari. “If the media reports cases that the Supreme Leader does not want to be reported, they are threatened. It is a basic fact that, in such a bureaucracy, the judiciary is a weapon in the hand of the absolute ruler or dictator.”
Jafari emphasizes that if Iran enjoyed a free press, the media could ask why Sadegh Amoli Larijani was in a position to make these demands. “In a democratic system, no official of the judiciary has the right to tell the media what they should or should not say,” she says. “In a democracy, the limits of free speech are set by law and an official of the judiciary has no right to express his opinion until a person or a public or private institution files a complaint — let alone issue threats.”
Jafari underscores the fact that, because Larijani was appointed by the Supreme Leader, he cannot be impartial when it comes to assessing the relationship between the regime and the media. In fact, he operates as an agent of the Supreme Leader. “He can’t just issue threats, he can hang anybody he wants to,” she says.
“A free press can ask why writing about corruption is considered grandstanding when nobody has dared to expose the extent and the depth of corruption inside the judiciary and the administrative systems of Iran,” Jafari says. “If we had a free press then it would be clear how this pervasive corruption within the governing establishment in Iran has made peoples’ lives increasingly difficult, and how it has made their children’s lives poorer. Unfortunately, the judiciary in Iran — run by someone who is nothing more than an appointed agent —has turned into its own antithesis.”
“Freedom of the press has limitations, such as a ban on insults and libel,” says Musa Barzin Khalifehloo, a human rights lawyer. “But these limitations must not be implemented in a way that would endanger the principle of the free flow of information. Here we see the judiciary chief threatening the media and members of parliament in order to prevent them from informing people.”
The media, he says, “can only be prosecuted if the news is falsely reported and the media have published it in the knowledge that it is. On the contrary, judicial authorities themselves have admitted that recent news reports are correct. It is unfortunate that judicial authorities do not want the financial corruption of government officials to be revealed to the public. The fundamental liberties of citizens are sacrificed for politics,” he says.
Larijani argues that, since according to the constitution, the judiciary is responsible for dispensing justice, members of parliament have no right to seek information about judicial cases. But Khalifehloo says this is false. “What the constitution says is that only the judiciary can take care of people’s complaints and the courts are the only authorities which can issue a verdict,” he says. “This doesn’t mean that MPs or the media cannot pursue the matter and publish information.”
“Prosecuting a case and getting information about it are two completely different things,” Khalifehloo says, a pointed reminder that Iran’s judiciary is itself corrupt.