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TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami made a ringing call on Tuesday for freedom of the press and religion as core principles of the Islamic republic.
"These are important principles of our nation and they should be defended," Khatami was quoted as saying by state television in a ceremony at Iran's official news agency IRNA.
"We must give the public accurate and sound information. This will disarm the 'medium of rumor' and also minimize the impact of the foreign media," he said.
Khatami, who was overwhelmingly elected last year on a mandate for social reform, also defended the rights of non-Moslems in Iran.
"I am trying today to defend people's rights on the basis of religion and freedom. We must defend the rights of an individual who does not even recognize my religion. At the same time, on the basis of freedom, I will defend the religious base of society," he was quoted as saying.
The president's call for the defense of non-Moslems comes amid international protests following the alleged hanging last week of a 52-year-old man of the Bahai faith who was charged with converting a Moslem woman.
Iran denied the reported execution. The Bahá'í faith is an offshoot of Islam that originated in Iran 150 years ago. It claims 6 million members worldwide, including 350,000 in Iran, where it is officially considered "a misleading and wayward sect."
It is considered heresy by Islamic fundamentalists, who have severely persecuted followers of the religion in Iran.
Khatami called for a probing, vigorous press to safeguard people's freedoms.
"Weak points must be criticized. ...The points of weakness, strength, shortcomings and problems must be presented as they are so that people's expectations match realities," he was quoted as saying by IRNA.
He also called for a safe environment for reporters, who he said should be free to criticize without fear of retribution.
There have been several instances of attacks on newspaper offices in the past year and a leading pro-Khatami daily was forced to close recently after publishing what were deemed to be incendiary stories. The daily continues to publish under another name.
Khatami has liberally granted publishing licences and the Iranian media has experienced a renaissance in the past year, tackling subjects that were formerly taboo and raising public interest in newspapers and magazines.
The president, who remains widely popular nearly a year after he took office, added: "Rights are not given by governments. They are God-given. Good governments must remove all hurdles impeding these rights. It is important that people come to believe in themselves and they themselves guard their own rights."
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