When the bailiff arrived with the order to close the offices of the newspaper Mardom-e Emrouz, a few members of the editorial board gathered round him to make their views known. “Do you know how many people are going to lose their jobs?” they asked him. The man said he was doing his job, and was simply the messenger. “Now that you have delivered their message,” the board told him, “Give them ours. Tell them they have deprived many journalists of their livelihoods.” Shortly after, the bailiff carried away the desks. Only a whiteboard was left behind, the message “Banned” scrawled across it.
A friend told me this story after a visit to the offices of the newspaper Mardom-e Emrouz. It was Saturday, January 17, the day authorities ordered its closure after one of its articles angered hardliner media. On its front page was a photograph of actor George Clooney alongside his message of support for the satirical publication and its staff.
“Most of us felt like a loved one had died,” a member of the editorial board said. “First you are shocked and bewildered. You know it’s true but you don’t accept it. But after a few minutes, there was weeping, nervous laughter, bitter smiles — and a group picture for memory’s sake...and hopes that we will see each other again in another editorial meeting on another board.”
Mardom-e Emrouz was well funded and had a strong, professional team. It tried to be careful about the regime’s no-go topics — not an easy task, as this usually includes anything to do with politics. The political leanings of the newspaper were stated on its front page, clear for anyone to see.
The newspaper’s editor-in-chief Muhammad Ghouchani said the type of article it published on January 15 was not unusual for the paper. Until recently, he said, “it was not uncommon for us to support a magazine like Charlie Hebdo, even in Iran’s current political atmosphere.” But, suddenly, after the attacks in Paris and the international media reaction that followed, the climate shifted. The editorial board knew it had to discuss the situation, and Charlie Hebdo, again. But nobody expected the paper to be shut down. “We believed that a written warning might put an end to the story. But the guns of Fars,Tasnim, Kayhan [the hardliner media] succeeded in closing us down.” Ghouchani says he believes the ban was payback, punishment for things that had nothing to do with Charlie Hebdo, the events of January 7, or the days that followed.
The Financial Burden for Journalists
In Iran, all journalists know their jobs are unstable. As a result, they are somewhat prepared. “We don’t know how long we are going to be without a job,” one journalist told me. “Even under normal conditions, salaries are low considering what we have to do, if we get paid.” She said some of the team might be lucky to find another job, but the majority of them will turn to freelance work.
When authorities shut down a newspaper, paying people is often a problem. “Some publications either don’t pay your fees for months or pay a pittance if they do,” the journalist told me. “It is a particular problem for married journalists or those who live just by themselves. There are no set rules. It’s unpredictable. This is why, in our world, a small ban is a big earthquake.”
Another journalist spoke in more specific terms. “After a newspaper is shut down, it is the journalists who pay the price,” he said. “We are not paid much. Staff journalists get a monthly salary of about a million tomans [$365] and freelancers are paid around 50,000 [less than $19] per 3,000 words. When a newspaper is shut down, losing this hurts a lot. The order to cease publication is a hard slap in the face. No matter how many times you have been slapped, it still hurts. Of course, old-timers who have had been through this type of experience before picked themselves up sooner than the younger ones did.”
“When a newspaper is banned, people usually hear about the managing editor and perhaps a few others,” said one board member, who agreed that it was the employees and the paper’s writers and journalists who suffered the most. “Under present conditions in Iran, journalists are not allowed to form a union.” In fact, authorities stepped in when journalists gathered outside the now defunct headquarters of the Association of the Iranian Journalists to show support for their colleagues in Paris.
“We are under a lot of financial pressure. Even though we love our jobs, we could have no choice but be to pursue other things,” said another journalist. “Even at the smallest newspaper, there are at least 50 employees. When a newspaper is shut down, financial problems take a negative toll on their personal and family lives. This is often ignored: people tend to pay more attention to political angles.”
Competing views about the reason Mardom-e Emrouz was closed down have been doing the rounds over the last 10 days, with many posting comments on Facebook.
“People advised us to be cautious and not to react hastily or too sharply,” another board member said. “But I personally did not believe that the photograph of George Clooney and the headline would result in a ban. A few days before this, we we were one of the few newspapers that reported on Majid Majidi’s movie about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. ‘The Prophet Arrives,’ read the headline. The interesting thing is that nobody noticed that headline — which goes to show that that the reaction to the headline and the George Clooney photo was just an excuse. The old-timers said they were used to bans, but still, we should not let it become commonplace, something we just put up with. Our colleagues are not going to give up. They will continue, in their own way.”