Silencing the Voices of Dissent

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The telephone call that announced the ban of Iran's foremost independent daily, Shargh, came late this morning. "I have good news for you," said Mohammad Atrianfar, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, putting the receiver down and taking a calm sip of tea. "We've been shut down." I happened to be in his office at the time, waiting to talk about Iran's nuclear confrontation with the West. Shargh has bravely broadened debate here about the issue, publishing critics of the government's hardline stance and informing Iranians that such radicalism carries high costs. The closure, suggests Atrianfar, may have been provoked by a recent caricature on the nuclear negotiations. He lays the cartoon on his desk, and points to the two figures it shows on a chess board. One is a horse, the other a donkey bathed in a halo of light. The donkey could be taken to represent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has in the past reported feeling surrounded by halos.

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The Press Supervisory Board, which includes representatives from various branches of government, ordered the shutdown, informing the newspaper that it faced at least 70 official complaints. The closure is a heavy blow to the reformist opposition against Ahmadinejad's government at a time when its policies grow more controversial, and its public support more uncertain. In recent weeks, the government has threatened critics with "legal action," and rounded up illegal satellite dishes that provide access to outside news channels popular among millions of Iranians. The banning of Shargh, Atrianfar explained, reflects the government hostility toward any form of political opposition. In its absence, there will no longer be any print forum through which liberal intellectuals and reformists can communicate their ideas with the public. "It's clear there's no tolerance for a reform movement to take root here," he said.

Within minutes of the phone call, Atrianfar's mobile began to ring incessantly. Busy with a television crew clearing out of his office, he handed it to me to answer, but asked me not to confirm the closure yet. I recognized the voice of the first caller, a distraught reformist and former official who was clearly careening down a highway. "Can we tell Saeed Laylaz?" I asked Atrianfar. He nodded. Laylaz is a contributor to Shargh and a member of the reformist inner clique, who is always the first to hear about everything. At such moments, reformists give up their usual pretense of invincibility. "These people, they're... they're..." at a loss for a polite expression, Laylaz uttered an angry string of obscenities and hangs up. Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy minister, walked past the door morosely. Never had Shargh's offices so closely resembled a reformist refugee camp, where former officials and intellectuals milled about waiting to be pushed into further obscurity.

Mohammad Quchani, the newspaper's renowned columnist, edged his way into the room, and asked Atrianfar whether he thought the closure might be temporary. They argued briefly over the most appropriate metaphor for the situation. Was banning a newspaper more like a car breaking down on the road, or a plane shutting off mid-flight? Was this going to be a crash or a stall? As they discussed, I sat thinking about how much I would miss Shargh, with its ironic headlines, perfectly pitched gibes at the government, and relentless reporting on Iran's social ills. Who else is going to take on the current administration's weird belief in itself as a miracle? Will any other newspaper publish important essays on secularism and democracy? Such debates are at the heart of Iran's internal struggles over governance and, until now, there was room for them in Shargh. "Iranians are people accustomed to having a political life of the mind, an existence in which they can have dialogue, argue, and refine their vision for Iranian society," said Atrianfar. "Having this taken away, being left with just a physical life where you cannot question or talk about anything, this is a kind of death."