BROOKE GLADSTONE: First, some quick history. For most of the 25 years since the Islamic Revolution, Iranians have lived under the strict moral and religious guidelines imposed by the un-elected conservative clerics. But in the aftermath of the devastating Iran-Iraq war, a disillusioned populace swept the reformist candidate Mohammed Khatami into the presidency. His liberal agenda promised a new era of freedom that everyone, especially the press, had been yearning for. The clerics, of course, fought back --imprisoning democratic leaders and murdering writers, artists and intellectuals, silencing students and closing newspapers. In the last parliamentary elections, voter turnout was abysmal, because the clerics had disqualified more than half of the reformist candidates. As a result, conservatives recaptured Parliament for the first time in a decade, and throughout the world, the reform movement in Iran was declared dead. And yet, a new film suggests that that announcement may be premature. Taghi Amirani is an Iranian born director who's lived in London since 1975. His documentary Red Lines and Deadlines portrays daily life at one of Iran's few remaining reform newspapers. Shargh is just a year old, but it has already learned to walk Iran's perilous political tightrope. Taghi, welcome to the show.
TAGHI AMIRANI: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems the reform press has to execute a very graceful dance to negotiate these strict but ill-defined laws of censorship known as "the red lines." [WOMAN SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
INTERPRETER: The first red line in our country is the leadership. This is Shargh's most important red line. Not only do we refrain from criticizing him, but we also try to ensure that our reporting is appropriate and our writing style is compatible with the language used by the state radio and television. Second comes the judiciary as the front line of confrontation with the press. They can take you to court and ban you. And then, it's the clergy. As the institution that supports the Islamic Republic, we cannot criticize the clergy.
TAGHI AMIRANI: They are confronting the reality of censorship in Iran, and also not constantly observing them. They're always pushing the red lines, always a little by little they're sort of breaking taboos and kind of pushing the barriers to see how far they can go without being shut down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shargh was shut down on the eve of the 2004 parliamentary election. They printed an open letter from the reformist members of Parliament to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini, criticizing the disqualification of more than 2000 reformist candidates.
TAGHI AMIRANI: Shargh and one other reformist newspaper dared to print part of this letter in the newspaper, and they were shut down the next day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But unlike any of the other reformist papers that died and stayed dead after that, Shargh rose from the ashes, and mainly because they apologized. Here's the editor in chief. [MAN SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
INTERPRETER: The managing director had the courage to step on his honor and apologize. I think it was right to apologize. We were wrong to think that in our country the members of Parliament could write to the leader without getting a bad reaction. We should understand that criticizing the leader is not on. They should not have written the letter, and we should not have printed it.
TAGHI AMIRANI: The way it looks at its role is -- survival of a newspaper equals influence. If you're shut down, you lose your influence, you lose your relationship with your readers, and it's better to have that relationship and develop that relationship rather than print something that gets you into trouble -- maybe makes you the talk of the town -- maybe with a couple of journalists going to prison, they become heroes, they can be celebrated -- but what does that do for the continuation of your reform movement and the continuation of your journalism?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So politics is tightly controlled, but there seems to be a little more leeway in the beat the paper calls "social affairs." What is that?
TAGHI AMIRANI: Well, social affairs covers everything from education and health and employment issues, cultural issues, crime, drug addiction. This is the, the approach that Shargh journalists have chosen for themselves. They, they feel that in the tightly controlled political arena where there isn't much leeway for criticism or even an engagement, they should maybe shift the battle for reform to the social affairs arena, where they have a more open hand, and in a way, build reform from grassroots up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So to get back to my intro-- the reform movement, as it was a few years ago may be dead, but a new and perhaps different reform movement is alive and kicking?
TAGHI AMIRANI: Yes. It's a new, more considered and reflective reform movement. Many of the reformists are accused of wanting too much, too quickly and being far too demanding and confrontational, and the reform movement has now gone back into retreat; it's re-evaluating its techniques. And Shargh is an example of reformist press that's finding a new language and a new way of making changes and gradual changes from inside.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The staff at Shargh is very young. The average age is 25. That's the same age as the Islamic Revolution itself, and they seem deeply patriotic, they love their country. They see their job as trying to make it better. Don't they perhaps share some of the goals of the Islamic Revolution?
TAGHI AMIRANI: I don't think anybody condemns the Islamic Revolution as such. It's the consequences and it's the aftermath and what came after that they have problems with. They're interested in change. They're interested in reform. They're not interested in revolution. They're interested in evolution. And they want to change the system in a non-confrontational and peaceful way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that a newspaper like Shargh can really make a difference?
TAGHI AMIRANI: Yes. And it has made a difference, and it is continuing to make a difference. It's reaching the, the right audience. It's reaching the young, and, and Iran has a huge young population, and these other people who have all been born after the revolution, and life under an Islamic regime is the only thing they know. And that's the same as the journalists who are working at Shargh, so that these are the same tribe so to speak.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, there was an odd sequence in your film where the editors are debating whether or not to put the death of Marlon Brando on the front page. They do, but that's a pretty cosmopolitan editorial decision for a newspaper that serves what we in the West would regard as a closed society.
TAGHI AMIRANI: Well, I think it's -- Iran is not as closed as we are led to believe. As a filmmaker who's lived in the West and have been obviously influenced by Western attitudes to my own country, I too thought, well, these people are going to be less informed, and I went with a sort of slightly superior attitude to - I know it all - I've been here - and-- I can teach them a few things. That was so not right. [LAUGHTER] These people can wipe the floor with me, and within a couple of days I was tamed. I'm very, very proud of these people. I'm very inspired by them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. TAGHI, thank you very much.
TAGHI AMIRANI: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: TAGHI Amirani's film Red Lines and Deadlines will air on PBS September 23rd. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, songs to shop by, and the death of the single.