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Censorship issues raised at Tehran book fair

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has harshly criticized book censorship in Iran, but existing laws confine his administration.
Iranians visit Tehran's annual book fair on May 5, 2004. Persian is famed as the melodic, courtly language of mediaeval poets such as Omar Khayyam and Hafez, but it is a dictionary of vulgar street slang that is taking Iranian literary circles by storm. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl  CJO/CRB - RTRIUKD

Book censorship has a long history in Iran. Its first official form began in 1884 under a set of rules written by Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar, king of Persia from 1848 to 1896, but the state of censorship has ebbed and flowed since then, depending on the strength of the central government. Book censorship has become a hot topic once again with the speech of President Hassan Rouhani at the 28th Tehran International Book Fair.

“The book-reviewing process should not be party-driven; may God prevent that from ever happening,” said Rouhani at the May 5 opening of the book fair. He was referring to two different cultural tendencies that exist in Iran. One trend, which is supported by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, advocates for more cultural limitations; the other one, supported by Reformists, is interested in providing more freedom of expression.

“The red lines should be square shaped or triangle shaped but not polygon shaped,” Rouhani stated during an unprecedented speech last February. “I am not saying we should or shouldn’t have these red lines [but] rather that we cannot have 100 different guidelines. We should have two, three or four guidelines; morality, sanctity and national security.”

Rouhani added, “Step by step, we should allow owners of these literary works to supervise their own work. If a book has been published and read, then it shouldn’t once again go through the difficult process of obtaining publishing permission for its second edition. Why is it that circulation has decreased? Why is it that young people are no longer interested in reading books? What is the problem?”

Article 24 of Iran’s constitution states, “Publications are allowed freedom of expression except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public. The details of this exception will be specified by law.” Legally, this has two parts; the first part guarantees freedom of expression, but the second part paves the way for a strict interpretation of Article 24 by religious conservatives.

Mahmoud Amuzegar, president of the Tehran Union of Publishers and Booksellers, told Al-Monitor regarding this article, “According to the constitution, freedom, which was one of the accomplishments of the 1979 Revolution, should be protected. Unfortunately, we still don’t have a clear description of the constitution. What I mean is that it has not been yet determined what is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”

On April 13, 2010, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which operates under the supervision of the supreme leader, approved a 16-article set of rules regarding book censorship in Iran that states that any criticism of religion, politics, politicians and officials is forbidden. No book that has violated these rules will ever be published in Iran. The law does not provide people with the option of impartially and unbiased judging of the contents of a book. Only officials of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, in a final and one-sided manner, decide which books can and cannot be published. 

Amuzegar, himself a veteran publisher and the director of Ameh Publications in Tehran, told Al-Monitor, “It would be beneficial for everyone to clarify the limits of censorship. This is what Mr. Rouhani is talking about. What he says is that we should have well-defined limits so that both the author and the publisher can understand what they are dealing with. This way, reviewers and controllers will also have guidelines for reviewing the contents of books.”

The publishing process became much slower in Iran following confirmation of the censorship rules in April 2010. The censor's office in the Ministry of Culture does not have enough censors to handle the 60,000 books published annually in Iran. Sometimes censors miss something, and as a result, the occasional book is published without censorship. But these cases are accidental, and conservatives will create a lot of noise if they ever learn about them.

Amuzegar spoke about how Rouhani’s Minister of Culture, Ali Jannati, originally wanted to allow the publishers to review the books themselves and remove the prepublication censorship, a plan that was proposed in August 2013. “Mr. Jannati had gained the publishers’ trust regarding this new proposal. We offered him suggestions, and hopefully he will consider them,” Amuzegar said. “We suggested that a supervising committee answerable to writers and publishers be formed in the … the organization responsible for reviewing books. This way we can make sure that books are not being denied publication because of the personal opinions of the censors. The current rules and regulations set in place by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution are problematic in certain areas and should be corrected by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.”

Amuzegar added, “Meaningful and significant moves have been made by the administration that have helped decrease people’s apprehensions. When I talk to the writers and publishers, they are generally satisfied. Of course this is not their ideal situation, and we should not be content with only this much but should try to achieve even more.”

Mohsen Bagherzadeh, who was the director of Toos Publication and worked as a publisher for more than 50 years, went to parliament in 2006 to speak with Reformist and conservative parliament members regarding the censorship issue. He presented a plan for improving the book censorship situation in Iran. Bagherzadeh passed away on Feb. 1, 2015. His plan is yet to be reviewed, and censorship is still one of the biggest problems in Iranian society.

While there is criticism of Iran’s book censorship, Khamenei has also shown that he is in favor of these measures governing books. Reza Ashtiani, the conservative parliament member representing the religious city of Qom, told Al-Monitor, “We have a set of rules regarding book publication, and they are quite clear. Books that are detrimental to the principles of Islam or are insulting to the holy prophets cannot be published. We cannot say that these rules are party driven.”