When Iranian President Hasan Rouhani began to speak at the media summit in Tehran where I was invited to speak, I pleasantly realized that I could get a drift of his speech. There were so many words like “hefazat” ( protection) and “Vajood” ( existence), “ Nizamay Islamiya” ( Islamic paramountcy), “azaadi” and many more such words that flowed so effortlessly from him in his long speech that I understood due to my understanding of Urdu- which is almost 80 percent Persian. He spoke on why freedom of the press had to be protected and the importance for job security for journalists. President Rouhani is a reformist, but I did not expect a stirring defense of freedom of media and how it was needed to make the government accountable. There has been little understanding outside of Iran about how vibrant and free the media is. From outside one gets an impression of an authoritarian society where there is little space for free expression. One example I would give, when President Rouhani finished his speech after he made a commitment for job security for media persons and the imperative to have free media, I heard a few journalists screaming and shouting. A few of them began to go after the President too! I asked around what was the reason behind the commotion and I was told that the journalists wanted to question the President on some of the promises that he had made and were screaming out examples of the problems they faced from some government agencies in their conduct of business.
President Rouhani may not have stopped to answer the queries of some angry journalists, but Iranian media is experiencing its Glasnost moment. Journalists ask sharp questions and one of them wanted to know “ whether I have been punished for my writing?” I told him that journalism has been protected by the right to freedom of speech which has been enshrined in our constitution. Till recently, there were very few instances of journalists being punished for what they wrote or said, but things were changing due to change in political environment. My interview had a headline about how journalists right to speech enjoyed constitutional protection. Later, I went around to newspaper offices of an old Persian daily, Etlat ( To inform). Here again I found top quality professional set ups with excellent archives, printing presses and off course top journalists and editors. Interestingly, women seem to outnumber men everywhere. All these young journalists looked extremely bright, intelligent and outgoing and asking tough questions from everyone. Though all of them had their head covered by a scarf or some kind of headgear, but it did not have a restraining effect on them. They mixed around, bantered and worked with their male colleagues freely. There was no suggestion that they feared the religious police who controlled public morality and conduct. I was told that many of these women journalists are not afraid to go anywhere or return after the night shift as there is no fear of crime on the roads. A journalist who has also stayed in India asserted that despite some restraints, she enjoyed more freedom in Iran with better quality of life. What was also revealing was that women are pursuing their careers more than getting down to getting married. Parents, too, I was told do not force their daughters to get married and are happy to provide them the environment where their talent can flower. Men, in comparison, are more conservative.
Amongst the young, who pine for more freedom, President Rouhani is very popular. There is a desire amongst them that he gets re-elected in May this year, but that could get a bit complicated if the nuclear deal that he signed with US and the European powers is rejected once Donald Trump takes over as the President of USA. If that happens then hardliners could get powerful again and there could be the return of the stridently anti-West policies as represented by the former President Mahmud Ahmedinijad. The young that I spoke with were happy with President Rouhani and didn’t want the moral police dictating their lives.
Iran is a society of high cultural accomplishments that have influenced both, Europe and Asia. After 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran withdrew in to a shell resulting in a manifest retreat in their language and culture. Allowing in the process the enlargement of West and Saudi backed Wahabi Islam. Much of it has changed after the nuclear deal, but it could all get reversed if US goes back to its hostile ways.