President Hassan Rouhani defended his administration’s policies and responded to criticisms about the recent crackdown on free expression in Iran during a press conference on April 10.
The briefing for over 200 local and international journalists was seen by many as the unofficial launch of Rouhani's campaign for re-election on May 19.
In addition to discussing international and national policies and defending the government's stance on free speech, the president also told the conference, which took place at the presidential compound in Tehran, that the nuclear deal had been a victory.
Rouhani answered questions about the recent crackdown on free speech, including the arrest in March of as many as 12 administrators for channels on the Telegram messaging service. Journalists Morad Saghafi and Hengameh Shahidi were also arrested in March, and Ehsan Mazandarani, one of the media workers accused of being part of an “infiltration network,” was re-arrested after only weeks of freedom.
Observers and commentators argue that the recent arrests have been part of a larger anti-Rouhani agenda promoted by hardliners ahead of the May 19 presidential and local council elections. Those who have been arrested are generally regarded to be pro-Rouhani and reformist.
“People must vocally express their discontent about issues that they find objectionable and go against their thinking, preferences and expected liberties,” said Rouhani, according to a report by the official Iranian Labor News Agency [Persian Link]. “This way others will know that people are unhappy and this will force them to correct their ways. People are the owners of this government. We have nobody except God and the people. We have no pact with any superpower.”
He said the government had “tried its hardest” to keep the Telegram channels running, and warned that blocking one social networking site could lead to the banning of other sites. But he also defended his administration’s record on promoting culture, pointing out that they had issued a large number of permits for cultural products, newspapers and other publications. “We have tried to make sure people involved in culture and the arts are happy,” he said. “Under [this] administration, we have tried to keep their societies and gathering places opened, to issue permits for movies and books with ease, to provide promised subsidies, to issue permits for newspapers and magazines with more speed and have a more open environment at the universities…”
Rouhani also said Iran hoped to “never see another” student banned from university, but made no mention of the continued ban on Baha’is attending further education — although officials have never officially announced the ban and routinely deny that the religious minority faces such discrimination.
Although Rouhani has not officially announced his candidacy to run for president in May’s election, he is expected to do so in the next few days.