Faraj Sarkohi has been persecuted by the regimes of both the Shah and the Islamic Republic. He was detained for a total of eight years during the Shah's rule and, following the revolution in 1979, has persistently called for greater press freedom. In December 1996, Mr Sarkohi was arrested by the Islamic Republic authorities who accused him of spying, and was released from prison in January 1998. He now lives in exile in Germany, campaigning for greater freedom of expression in his home country. He has been awarded the 1999 WAN Golden Pen of Freedom. This article is based on extracts of an essay, the complete text of which can be viewed by clicking here.

The Seeds of Freedom Are Sown in Iran

By Faraj Sarkohi, Iran

The twentieth anniversary of the Islamic revolution was being celebrated when, less than four months ago, Darish Forouhar and his wife Parvane Forouhar, leaders of the Mellyate Iran Party and prominent critics of the despotic regime, were found stabbed to death in their Tehran flat. Theirs was the first in a series of murders at the end of 1998, including those of the translator Mohammad Jafar Sharif and two active members of the Society of Iranian Writers, the writer Mohammad Paritana and the poet Mohammad Mokhtari.

Rather than focusing on the anniversary of the foundation of the Islamic Republic, the press in Iran has chosen to concentrate on these murders and the latest statement issued by the Iranian Ministry of Information, the political security police and a team of investigators that the latest killings had been carried out by officials of the Ministry of Information.

All the available evidence and the experience of people like myself show that the Ministry of Information has become an organization which, acting on instructions from the higher organs of power, secretly kills prominent and influential critics of the system and members of the opposition, both at home and abroad. Such acts were carried out most brutally against writers and journalists who had sought freedom of activity for their professional organizations and freedom of speech, and who had over the past 20 years protested against the official and unofficial censorship imposed by government agencies and pressure groups.

That is why the people of Iran wanted a group chosen by independent international organizations and by representatives of the Society of Iranian Writers to participate in the investigations of the killings. But this proposal was rejected even by the most liberal wing in the government.

Those in possession of publishing licences make a point of censoring prepared materials, stories and novels of their own accord, either out of loyalty to the government or out of fear of the numerous punishments announced by the Press Law, which criminalizes criticism of Islamic principles, insult to clerics or the religious leader, and protest against legislation and traditions discriminating against women. This same law is drawn up in a way open to interpretation and can be applied to any critical remark.

It is almost two years now since Seyed Mohammad Khatami was elected President on 23 May 1997, in landslide elections that ushered in a new era of enhanced freedom of speech and the issuing of new publications. Women and the young, who had played an important part in the elections, hoped for a more promising future and that the all- pervading control over the private life of citizens would be lifted, nurturing hopes like buds on trees eagerly awaiting their time to blossom.

President Khatami had a difficult task ahead: to act as mediator between the people, weary of 20 years of oppression, and the Islamic fundamentalists in or outside the government who resist even partial reforms. The President, like most Third World reformers, attempts on the one hand to limit the power of the oppressors, and on the other fears the growth of a popular movement. In his confusion he is unable to reply to the questions put to him. For he cannot find a compromise between religious power or the Constitution and democracy or civil liberties. The undivided power of the mullahs and the clergy, as reflected in the Iranian Constitution and in the Code of Islamic Legislation, stands in an irreconcilable contradiction with the republican form of government and the system of popular suffrage.

Even at the beginning of 1998, the conservative frost set in. Ten publications were closed down, among them large- circulation newspapers protecting the newly-elected President that had included items by critics of the regime. Writers were officially warned that they had no right to set up their own trade union organizations.

The censorship of books continues, and a license for a publishing activity is still being issued only to those who are loyal to one of the branches of power or to those who keep their publishing activity within the narrow framework of censorship. The economic crisis throughout Iran is meanwhile rapidly gathering momentum. The young, so eager to contribute to the development of Iranian society, have dim prospects when unemployment is at 10 million. Inflation has shot up. Shrinking oil revenues, corruption, the state's inability to attract foreign capital, and many other factors have exacerbated economic and social hardship.

But the most serious difficulty facing the clerical regime that runs Iran is not the economic crisis nor the political crisis of a growing conflict between fundamentalists and reformers. The most serious challenge to the Islamic government is the change that has taken place within the minds of Iranians. A majority of the Iranian people - and not just the intelligentsia - want freedom.

Freedom of speech has an extraordinary role to play in Iran. Not only in Iran, but also in all other countries which are deprived of freedom of speech, the mass media and the independent press have a greater role to play and are doing very much more than simply conveying information and discussing differing opinions and judgements.

A society offering freedom to publish and the removal of censorship is a society that has stepped outside the narrow framework of the dominant uniform culture.

The press of societies downtrodden by dictatorship, because of the absence of political parties and independent people's organizations, is the only way for people to voice their aspirations when radio and television are monopolized by the state. Together with such telecommunications as the Internet, foreign radio stations and the use of satellites, the press overcomes the boundaries of uniformity and despotism and builds its own culture. The role and importance of the press and of these systems grows from day to day.

Freedom of the press, abolition of censorship, and freedom of speech in Iran are now called for by one and all. A promising prospect for the written word in Iran.