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MEDIA-IRAN: Self-Imposed Sanctions

Kimia Sanati

TEHRAN, Feb 7 2007 (IPS) - Iran&#39s nuclear programme, an undeniably serious issue for Iranians and the rest of the world, has overshadowed the country&#39s deplorable human rights situation, including severe censorship of books and publications.

Limiting freedom of expression in Iran covers many fields, from banning satellite TV, opposition newspapers and periodicals, student publications and books to intensive filtering of the Internet.

During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (August 1997 – August 2005) the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance relaxed censorship greatly, for which it came under constant attack from hardliners for "encouraging immorality". Yet, many works of literature and other books were published uncensored.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad&#39s culture minister, whose fundamentalist views are overtly expressed, has adopted a very restrictive policy towards all areas of publication. The government is backed by a hardliner-dominated parliament that follows the same attitude.

Out of the 659 books that had acquired publication permits under Khatami&#39s reformist rule, 518 were found faulty by hardline parliamentarians in a probe, last summer. Faults cited included encouragement of illicit relations, descriptions of sex scenes, encouragement of pre-marital relationships, mocking religious beliefs, and encouragement of secularist views.

The ever increasing pressure on writers and publishers has drawn protests from a number of prominent writers such as Mahmoud Dolatabadi, a novelist who announced in November that he would not attempt publishing any new books as long as the present attitude of the censorship department of the ministry prevails.

Another well-known novelist, Amir Hasan Cheheltan, whose novels deal with social and political issues, recently wrote a protest letter to the ministry&#39s secretariat for the Book of the Year Award, asking that his novel, ‘The Persian Dawn&#39, be withdrawn from the list of nominations.

‘There have been reports in the media that my novel has been nominated for this year&#39s Book of the Year Award. In the past three decades I have always been critical of the attitude of the body that holds the competition because that attitude is against the principles that I believe in. With great regret I must announce that as long as the publication of even one book is delayed or any book is deprived of the right of publication, my ethics will not allow me to run in the competition,&#39 the ‘Etemad&#39 newspaper quoted from Cheheltan&#39s letter.

The ministry&#39s response was that he has no right to withdraw his book. "If a writer doesn&#39t want his book to run in the Book of the Year Award competition, he shouldn&#39t write the book. When a book is written, the writer no longer can have control over it," a ministry official was quoted by the Fars news agency as saying.

Writers are resorting to the courts too. Ebrahim Yazdi, Iran&#39s first foreign minister after the Islamic revolution and the leader of the Freedom Movement of Iran, has long been waiting for permission to publish a collection of essays and speeches titled &#39Religious Intellectualism and New Challenges&#39. To protest what he considers deprivation of his constitutional rights, Yazdi filed a lawsuit against culture and Islamic guidance minister, Saffar Harandi, and the director-general of the department of censorship.

‘&#39After being called to court, the director-general wrote to the publisher asking that four pages of the book be removed, but he didn&#39t specify what the problems were. If this was done, he said, the book would be sent to the decision-making committee again for approval. I obviously didn&#39t accept because this kind of censorship is even against the existing laws of the Islamic Republic,&#39&#39 Yazdi told IPS.

Emad Baghi, founder of the first Iranian society against the death penalty, is another writer whose books are routinely banned. "In spite of my ideal of maximum freedom of expression, I can put up with a certain degree of censorship. But I just can&#39t be published even if I agree to censor myself," Baghi told IPS.

Author of more than 20 works on religion, sociology, history and the death penalty, Baghi has been denied the right to publish six books over the past few years. "This is a war waged against writers&#39 identities. There are people among the rulers who want the identity of certain writers to be destroyed. I am one among them," he said.

Publishers, too, are finding the circumstances difficult to cope with in times described by the Iranian Pen Association as one the darkest for writers in contemporary Iranian history.

"It is not just that new books are denied permission to be published. Even books that have been printed several times in the past few years are now banned. Books from any category can be banned, including modern or classical literature, political works, books on transcendental meditation and mysticism, feminist works, art books and even collections of old songs," a publisher told IPS on the condition of anonymity. "I may lose my publisher&#39s license if they find out I have been interviewed by the foreign press," he said.

"If the man in charge of approving publications finds anything in a book that he considers &#39immoral&#39 or &#39threatening to the system&#39 or views he doesn&#39t favor himself, the book is bound to be banned. They banned a history of Iranian music because there was this picture of a female singer from ages ago in the book. Her hair wasn&#39t covered. But that was only an excuse because we see women&#39s hair in foreign films on state-run TV all the time," he said.

"There is a demand for most of the banned books so if a book is banned after publication or if it is published abroad, Xerox copies flood the black market. Very obviously, this deprives the writer and the publisher of their rights. Many publishers are going bankrupt and have to close down and writers are turning to other ways to make their living. Bookshops are now mostly surviving by selling textbooks and stationary. It&#39s a huge cultural disaster and too serious to neglect," he added.

Denied the printed word, the younger Iranian generation has found a new medium of expression – the Internet blog. In spite of great restrictions and very intensive filtering, Iran now has the biggest number of blogs after China.

"I remember hearing about United States sanctions all the time since I was a child. I think everybody has got used to that, or the idea of an imminent U.S. attack on Iran. To be able to do as they please without facing opposition, the oppressive regime is limiting freedom of expression, even more than before. It&#39s frightening that people are getting used to this kind of sanctions too, a passionate 23-year-old student activist and blogger told IPS.

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