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Farnaz Seifi / act
May 27, 2013

The list of taboo subjects in the Islamic Republic of Iran is long. Many authors censor themselves but this is often not enough for the authorities.

Closing down Cheshmeh Publication in Iran
Image: digarban.com/node/7018

In January 2013, the Iranian authorities searched the offices of four daily newspapers and one weekly magazine. They arrested at least 15 journalists who were accused of having links to foreign media.

In the following days, the Ministry for Intelligence and Security, as well as other official organs, published press releases talking about an international conspiracy. These have now become commonplace in the state-sanctioned Iranian media.

An anti-state network

In March, Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi announced that 600 Iranian journalists were part of an anti-state network. He said 150 were active in Iran whereas the others were working from abroad.

Book cover: Election Fallout: Iran's Exiled Journalists on Their Struggle for Democratic Change
Critical books usually do not see the light of day in IranImage: Schiler Hans Verlag

He said the arrests of journalists were an attempt to "prevent the emergence of sedition prior to the elections."

Soon after, the ministry announced it had detected media outlets, including Deutsche Welle and France's RFI, that were in contact with the British secret services.

It also accused Reporters without Borders as well as the UN human rights special rapporteur for Iran of being part of this international network, saying it was a conspiracy against Islam and the "holy system of the Islamic republic."

"A state cannot accuse the whole world of being an instrument of the secret services," said Reza Moini of Reporters without Borders.

The authorities are justifying their restrictions of the media and cultural institutions with their conspiracy theories more and more, but publishing houses are also being targeted.

Bypassing the censors

Every book that is published has to be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, also known as Ershad. It is not uncommon for writers to wait years for permission or for approved books to be taken off the shelves shortly after being published.

Last year, Ebrahim Yazdi who was foreign minister for a few months in the interim government after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, decided to publish two books online after being refused permission by the authorities. One book was about Mehdi Bazargan, Iran's first prime minister after the revolution, and the second was about the student movement of the 1940s and 50s.

However, it is not only books of political nature that are censored. Children's books, too, can come into the line of fire, as Farideh Khalatbari, the director of the international award-winning publishing house Shabaviz, found out.

Women issues related books in Tehran bookfair
Iranian writers often censor themselves before requesting permission to publishImage: Mehr

She told Iranian news agency ILNA that two volumes of a four-volume book about angels did not receive permission to be published because the depiction of the angels was not "proper."

The first two volumes with the same angels had been published however. Moreover, she asked who had actually ever seen angels in order to know whether a depiction was "proper" or not.

Ahmad Bigdeli, who won the Iranian state book award in 2006, also told the news agency that he had waited four years for permission for a detective novel only to be told that the Ershad ministry did not like his portrayal of a policeman with a baton in his hand. He said nothing could be done about such attitudes.

He added that the ministry had tightened its controls so much in the past few years that even authors who were used to censoring themselves were in despair.

Shahla Lahidji, the director of Roshangaran Publications that issues mainly women's literature said there shouldn't be any fear of a society that reads - but of one that does not. "The production of cultural goods is proof that a society's brain is active and steering it away from death."

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