Journalists in Iran are sounding the alarm over a government-drafted media regulation bill that is expected to be sent to the parliament for approval soon, after a two-year delay.
The government has said that the bill, which will call for the creation of a media oversight organization, is aimed at supporting media rights and freedoms and regulating the media.
But some critics say its approval would mean an end to any form of independent journalism in the Islamic republic. They say that, instead of ensuring more rights for the media, it would satisfy the demands of the country's security organs and the hard-line conservative judiciary for a tighter state control.
The bill "will in practice turn all of Iran's media into state media," Ali Asghar Ramezanpour, who served as deputy culture minister under reformist former President Mohammad Khatami and is now based in London, told RFE/RL.
"Despite what is being said, a governmental organization will be in charge of controlling all issues related to media, meaning that in practice we won't have any independent media anymore," he said.
A number of senior newspaper editors and media experts have warned that the bill is likely to worsen the already difficult situation journalists face in the Islamic republic, where they are subjected to state pressure and written and unwritten censorship rules.
The publication of a draft of the media-regulation bill sparked widespread criticism among journalists and media-freedom advocates, and it was not submitted to parliament at the time.
Culture Minister Ali Jannati said on August 6 that the bill would be submitted to parliament "in the next few days."
It is unclear whether there have been substantial changes in the text, but some who have seen it say their concerns remain strong.
Media expert Kambiz Norouzi described the planned legislation as an attempt to undermine the independence of the media and subject it to government control.
"Such problems still exist in the text of the draft bill which I saw recently -- even though some say that it has been amended, it still aims at eliminating the independence of the media and journalism," he told the semi-official ILNA news agency.
The 2014 text says the media organization will be a "nongovernmental" institution run by a "high council." But it says the council will include state officials, among them the culture minister or his representative and three members of the press advisory board: a lawmaker, a judge, and a representative of the Qom seminaries.
The seminaries, where Shi'ite clerics are trained, are home to a number of influential conservative clerics.
Mehdi Rahmanian, the chief editor of the reformist Shargh daily, is among critics who fear the bill will limit the media further and result in greater self-censorship.
"The draft bill includes conditions that would push media toward more government control; it sees the press and journalists as a government body, the government can directly interfere in their work whenever and whenever it wants," Rahmanian told ILNA on August 16.
The organization that would be created under the legislation would be in charge of issuing work licenses for journalists and overseeing their work, according to the 2014 text.
Some of the stated goals of the organization, including "upholding religiosity" and "observance of national interests and national security" have also led to concerns as journalists have in the past been summoned and jailed for allegedly undermining religious values, "harming the country's national interests," or "acting against national security."
A 'Gift' To The Media
The draft bill says that journalists who commit violations, including those who disrespect religious and legal principles, can face punishments that range from a warning to a permanent ban on all journalistic activities.
Culture minister Jannati has described the draft media oversight bill, as well as draft legislation on access to information, as a "gift" to the media.
"Creating a media regulating organization, similar to the oversight medical board, has been one of the measures that has always been expected by media workers, it can determine ties between journalists and also with the government," Jannati was quoted as saying on August 6 by the official government news agency IRNA.
He added that the draft bill had been prepared in consultations with media workers and think tanks.
But critics have said that the government has not taken into account their views.
Ramezanpour pointed the finger at Hossein Entezami, the deputy culture minister for press affairs, who has reportedly promoted the creation of a media oversight organization.
"[Entezami], a former expert of the intelligence ministry, is the main decision-maker in the Culture Ministry regarding press bills, and he thinks more about limiting media [outlets] than about advocating for their rights," Ramezanpour said.
Media watchdogs regularly criticize Iran for limiting the free flow of information and accuse the authorities of imprisoning journalists while denying them the right to fair trials.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in May that "Iran continues to be one of the world's five biggest prisons for journalists, with a total of 30 professional and citizen-journalists detained."