Iran's outgoing conservative parliament on Monday approved a series of tough new measures against the press amid a renewed crackdown on pro-reform newspapers and journalists.
The measures give conservatives new controls over papers and magazines and come just a day after Iran's Revolutionary Guards, a pillar of the Islamic regime, issued a dark warning to the increasingly bold pro-reform press.
MPs approved several articles of a stringent press bill whose approval in a draft reading last year helped spark student protests that erupted in six days of deadly riots, the worst unrest here since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Among other restrictions, the new measures would require all newspaper licences to be approved by the intelligence ministry, the courts and the police -- all strongholds of the regime's conservatives.
Licences had previously been issued by the culture ministry, which is led by Ataollah Mohajerani, a close pro-reform ally of President Mohammad Khatami.
Conservatives have repeatedly called for Mohajerani to step down or be sacked as the press has become sharper and more brazen in its attacks on the regime since Khatami's 1997 election.
The new rules also stipulate that the press commission must be "faithful to the Islamic revolution." Charges of spreading anti-Islamic propaganda have been used to jail leading journalists in recent months.
Parliament -- which is winding down its term as a new reform-majority legislature prepares to take office in May -- also expanded the scope of culpability in press offences.
Under the new measures, individual journalists and others involved in the publication of material deemed offensive or illegal can be hauled before the courts. Current law holds only newspaper directors responsible.
Last week parliament passed other measures in the omnibus bill, including an article giving the state security court the power to close down any newspaper immediately for a two-month period.
Conservative MPs have said the bill is designed to combat newspapers and journalists who "violate the values and principles of the Islamic republic."
Even if the new parliament, as is likely, overturns many of the measures, Monday's vote indicates the growing pressure being placed on the freedom of the press -- a cornerstone of Khatami's social and political reforms.
Iran's Revolutionary Guards, an elite force under the direct command of supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a strongly worded warning to the reform press on Sunday.
It accused newspapers, editors and even politicians of defending "US-style" -- that is, secular -- reforms in Iran and hinted darkly that a backlash against the movement was on the way.
"When the time comes, these people will feel a blow to the head delivered by the revolution," the Guards said in a statement that was carried by state radio.
They accused papers of writing articles "along the lines of foreign demands" and "attacking the values of the revolution."
The press has been a regular battleground for competing conservative and reform factions in Iran ever since Khatami took office three years ago pledging to institute a "civil society" with expanded freedoms.
Last year the conservative-led courts closed down several pro-Khatami newspapers, and the banning of the Salam daily -- which came on the same day parliament passed the draft version of the new press measures -- sparked student protests.
Those protests quickly erupted in six days of bloody riots after demonstrators were brutally attacked by security forces and Islamic vigilantes.
On Friday, Khamenei addressed thousands of worshippers at weekly prayers in Tehran and defended the regime's use of what he called "legal violence," saying it was a means of keeping order in the country – TEHRAN (AFP)
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