Iran's Rouhani defends 'freedom of press with responsibility'

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani defended Saturday what he called "freedom of the press with responsibility" and criticised the practice of shutting down offending newspapers.

"The government is in favour of freedom of expression with responsibility," he said in a vigorously applauded speech to media figures broadcast live on television.

"If we break the pens and shut the mouths, public trust will be deeply harmed."

There is a long-standing practice in Iran of temporarily shutting down newspapers as punishment for publishing articles deemed offensive to the values of the Islamic republic.

But Rouhani said "shutting down a newspaper should be the last resort not the first. If one violates the law we should deal with him or the managing director of the daily."

"Why should we shut down the whole newspaper and make a lot of people unemployed," he asked.

As recently as last month, the judiciary banned a newly launched reformist daily Aseman (Sky) and arrested its managing director over an article deemed insulting to Islamic law. The editor was later freed on bail.

In October, reformist daily Bahar (Spring) was ordered closed over an article seen by critics as questioning the beliefs of Shiite Islam.

Iran's judiciary system is controlled by conservatives who frequently clash with the government over policies they deem to be too liberal.

Culture Minister Ali Janati recently urged an end to the ban on social media, including Facebook. That and his move to allow the publication of previously banned books has sparked a furore among conservatives.

"Critics and opponents of this government are free and they will remain free, but let the supporters of the government enjoy the same freedom and security," Rouhani said.

Rouhani, who has the support of reformists and moderates, pledged to work for more social freedom during his election campaign.

str/sgh/al