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By F. Brinley Bruton

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has spoken out in support of freedom of the press in the wake of several arrests of journalists by hard-line security forces.

“Shutting down a newspaper should be the last resort," he said during a speech broadcast on state television on Sunday. "Just as execution is always the last punishment."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.Ebrahim Noroozi / AP, file

"The government must be criticized, the judiciary must be criticized, the parliament must be criticized,” he said. “But criticizing does not mean ... smearing, insulting or lying."

Rouhani also called for “transparent regulations” governing the media.

Five journalists and activists have been arrested by the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in recent days, according to semi-official Fars news agency. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's most powerful man, controls the IRGC as well as the country's judiciary.

Rouhani also said that while some news organizations are regularly targeted, others are close to security forces and "sometimes act like the secret police."

"You learn from some publications who will be arrested tomorrow, what is going to be closed down," he said.

Rouhani, a moderate who has worked for better relations with the U.S., supported July’s nuclear agreement to shrink the country’s nuclear program in exchange for easing international sanction. Parts of the government opposed the deal and saw it as a damaging concession to the West.

Reuters contributed.