Rouhani and Judiciary Clash over Ban on Publishing Images of Former President Khatami
The Rouhani administration and the hardline-dominated Judiciary in Iran are engaged in an increasingly direct confrontation over the ability of Iranian media to publish images of the former (1997-2005) reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
With claims and counterclaims volleying back and forth over the existence of—and legality of—a ban on published images of Khatami, the brouhaha over the former president’s public profile illustrates the intensifying political battle underway in Iran between hardliners who wish to banish reformists from the political scene in Iran and moderate factions who wish to permit their continued political existence.
The current flare-up was sparked by the summoning of a well-known publisher to a Special Clerical Court within the Judiciary after a picture of Khatami was printed in one of his publications. But the controversy over Khatami has been building for years and reflects still unresolved tensions dating back to the 2009 disputed presidential election in Iran.
A ban on any mention or image of Khatami in the Iranian media was first announced by the Judiciary on February 16, 2015 when Judiciary Spokesperson Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei told reporters that on orders from the Tehran Prosecutor, the media were not allowed to publish images or content pertaining to the former president.
On February 26, 2015, two websites, Jamaran and Bahar News, were blocked after they published content and images of the former president. After signing letters of recognizance, the two websites were unblocked on orders from the Prosecutor.
Fast forward to June 13, 2015, when President Rouhani, answering a question from a reporter, denied the existence of any ban, stating, without mentioning any names, that “It’s a complete lie that the Supreme National Security Council has banned the publication of anyone’s photo. The Supreme National Security Council has no such directive and if anyone claims otherwise, he is breaking the law and must be punished.” (Conservative media had previously claimed that the ban on Khatami’s images and words was ordered by the Supreme National Security Council.)
A day later, on June 14, 2015, in a direct reply to Rouhani, Judiciary Spokesperson Ejei said in an interview with Tasnim News Agency, that the ban on the publication of Khatami’s images and speeches was carried out under the Tehran Prosecutor’s orders and that it was not related to the Supreme National Security Council. Ejei said, “The Prosecutor has acted on its inherent responsibilities and so long as the Prosecutor’s Order remains in place, any violation will be dealt with.”
The legality of the ban was then questioned by conservative MP Ali Motahhari, who wrote to Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi on June 15, 2015, asking him to clarify which court made the decision and based on which article of the law.
In his letter, published by ISNA, Motahari wrote, “As you know, several officials and eventually the esteemed President have stated that the Supreme Security Council has not issued a resolution banning former president Mr. Seyed Mohammad Khatami’s images and speeches, and the Judiciary’s First Deputy Mr. Mohseni Ejei has also confirmed this fact and has said that this has been done based on orders from the Prosecutor…As this order was announced by you at a press conference, I would like to ask that…you announce which article of the law or which qualified court of law’s ruling was based on?”
Then, on December 6, 2015, the Ettela’at daily, one of Iran’s oldest newspapers, published Khatami’s photo as part of an interview with the former president originally published in a Lebanese newspaper. Ettela’at’s much-respected veteran publisher, Mahmoud Doaei, a cleric, was then summoned to the Special Clerical Court within the Judiciary twice after Khatami’s photo appeared.
Summoning the newspaper’s publisher to the Special Clerical Court is a violation of the Iranian constitution. According to Article 168 of the constitution, “Political and press offenses will be tried openly and in the presence of a jury, in courts of justice. The manner of the selection of the jury, its powers, and the definition of political offenses, will be determined by law in accordance with the Islamic criteria. Furthermore, the Special Clerical Court acts independently of the Judiciary and is accountable only to the Supreme Leader.
On December 7, 2015, during a ceremony marking Students Day, officials demanded the removal of posters of Khatami that the students had posted.
Meanwhile the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is ostensibly in charge of monitoring the media and is under the authority of President Rouhani, has continued to expressed no knowledge of any ban on the publication of the former president’s photo.
“If the media violate any decision made by the Supreme National Security Council, the Council can shut them down temporarily for two months and investigate their case. But as far as Mohammad Khatami’s photo is concerned, the Supreme National Security Council has not issued any ban which has been approved by the Supreme Leader,” Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance Spokesperson Hossein Noushabadi said on December 14, 2015.
Government Spokesperson Mohammad Bagher Nobakht said at a press conference on December 15, 2015, that since Hassan Rouhani became president, no such directive has been issued by the Supreme National Security Council, as repeatedly claimed by Judiciary Spokesperson Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei.
“Perhaps the Judiciary is referring to directives from the past. Therefore, I am asking the Supreme National Security Council to clarify this matter and inform the public of the truth,” Nobakht said.
The political tug of war over former president Khatami’s public presence in Iran has been building ever since the 2009 presidential election. That election, which brought the hardline Ahmadinejad to power, was marked by widespread public doubts and protests over the veracity of the election results, and those protests were ended only by a violent state crackdown.
The Green Movement arose from those protests, and its reformist leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Zahra Rahnavard, whom Khatami supported, have been under house arrest since February 2011. While Khatami was not put under house arrest, he has been harassed for years as a result of his association with the reformist leaders, who are still referred to by hardliners in Iran as “Seditionists.”
In 2010, the authorities blocked Khatami’s website and imposed a travel ban on him. On July 8, 2014, ten Members of Parliament wrote a letter to the Minister of Justice asking him to implement a ban on Khatami’s image, speeches, and foreign travel. The MP’s claimed there was a legal ruling on this subject from the Supreme National Security Council and demanded its implementation.
The extent to which hardliners have sought to banish Khatami from political life in Iran illustrates the extent to which they fear reformist political forces in the country. This fear has intensified as the country approaches Parliamentary elections in February 2016. Hardliners are anxious to maintain their dominance in the country, especially after the perceived strengthening of the more moderate Rouhani administration with the signing of the nuclear deal in July 2015.