Journalism is a hazardous profession in Iran, and it can be even more dangerous when trying to report the truth about the government and Iran’s establishment figures. Censorship, Iranian Style is a collection of stories by 18 Iranian journalists, writers and cartoonists who have experienced censorship — under the Islamic government, as well as under the Shah’s regime prior to the 1979 Revolution. Their tales of being silenced, harassed and imprisoned provide a solid understanding of the everyday bravery and courage of Iranian journalists, and give a new perspective on the menacing and warped mentality of Iranian censor officials.
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Working as a journalist in Iran, especially as a photojournalist for the foreign media, engenders problems that perhaps cannot be fully described through writing.
My decade-long tenure working with the Foreign Media Department of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is the story of censorship, by every means and every method possible. Sometimes the censorship expunges the subject itself, sometimes it arises from political and religious sensitivities, and every so often the journalist or the photographer himself is redacted. My experience working in Iran involves all three forms of censorship.
In the final episode, authorities ordered me to stop carrying a camera, which effectively canceled my press credential. Ultimately I, the journalist, was censored in my entirety, and this is what led me to move to the United States.
It is a challenging period to convey from afar, in prose, but perhaps recounting some scenes relay a sense of my experience.
On October 14, 2003, I was waiting at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport for the arrival of the Noble Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, surrounded by well-wishers who were also expecting her. Among the crowd, there were a number of woman representatives to the parliament, and there was an extraordinary enthusiasm and a passion among all those women present, many of them in white headscarves and bearing bouquets of flowers. It was 9pm and she had yet to arrive. I busied myself taking photos of the scene, of young people who were holding placards supporting gender equality. I spotted Tehran police chief Morteza Talaei among the crowd and walked towards him to take his picture. It was dark and I had to use a flash. Immediately one of his companions approached me, his manner aggressive, and asked me who I was working for and why I had photographed the police chief. I replied that I was taking a picture of the police chief because he was participating in the ceremonies. But the man, who had stubble and an untucked white shirt, in the Hezbollahi style, warned me not to publish the photo.
He was in a rush to go, but before parting, he shot me a final look: “Don’t forget that in no circumstances can you publish the picture.” Then he disappeared into the crowd.
I was astonished by this exchange, and approached the public relations director for the Tehran police, a man I knew who had been nearby and witnessed the incident. I asked him why the police chief’s aide had behaved that way. “Just forget about it, get back to work,” he told me. And so I did.
An hour later when Shirin Ebadi arrived I took my pictures and went to the office of the Associated Press to transmit them. It was late and selecting what pictures to send to New York took some time, so it was near two in the morning when I was finished. But as I was leaving the office the phone rang. It was a colleague from the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), asking me to send them some pictures from the welcoming ceremony, as their photographer had not been able to make it there. I sent him around 12 pictures that I had not used myself, including one that featured the Tehran police chief, next to the same guy in civilian clothes.
I imagined the man had objected because he was an intelligence agent and did not want his picture to be published by a foreign news agency. And the police department’s own public relations director had told me that it was all right, so I sent the picture to ISNA and went home.
It was around seven or maybe even earlier when my mobile rang. “Didn’t I tell you not to publish my picture?” the voice shouted angrily. I said that I hadn’t. But he knew that I had sent his picture to ISNA. I sat up, glanced at my watch and said nothing. He told me to take all the pictures that I had taken the night before and report to the Foreign Media Department at Takhti Square.
He said that he would wait for me for two hours. I was shaken, and didn’t know what to say. I resented that I had to show up and explain myself to someone I didn’t know, who rang my mobile phone in the early hours of the morning and shouted at me. In all the years I worked in Iran, such calls from faceless people in government were made politely. Usually someone rang and asked me politely to meet him on one of the upper floors of Esteghlal or Azadi hotels. Years later I learned that they did the same thing to other colleagues as well. I generally tried to hide these meetings from my family, as I didn’t want to worry them needlessly. I was wrong of course, because years later my ex-wife told me that she noticed a change in my behavior whenever there was a suspicious phone call, and I had to accept an invitation by an agent of the Intelligence Ministry, to make me understand that I was under their watchful eyes.
Perhaps she was right. But what I remember is that each of those calls upset my stomach for a few days. Maybe I was scared, it is hard to recall now, but what I do know is that meeting the agent did not make me happy at all.
That morning the phone call from that unknown person made me nervous as well, but since we were to meet at the offices of the Foreign Media Department, I thought there was some official business. When I arrived a guard motioned towards a door behind him, and told me to go in and wait.
The room was just a big storage room filled with dust, and soon, the same agent walked in. He sat behind a table in front of me and told me to explain why I had published his picture despite his warning. His voice rang with anger, and his tone was loud and insulting. I explained that he could not object to my taking pictures in a public place because he had been present. I said photographers are free to take pictures in such spaces. Then I mentioned what the publicity director had said, but he was not listening.
This was my first so-called “intimidating interrogation,” where no defense is acceptable. My usual meetings with Intelligence Ministry agents were very different; requests were made politely, the tone was kept friendly. But this unknown plainclothes agent was a different character entirely. He gave me a blank sheet of paper and told me to write down exactly what had happened, to confess that I was in the wrong, that he would be within his rights to file a complaint against me and that I had made a mistake in giving his picture to ISNA against his wishes. For two full hours, he interrogated me about my personal life. He had me sign the paper and told me to give him the CD of all the pictures that I had taken the night before. As we were parting, he told me that I should think more about my two children.
When he left I was numb. This was the beginning of my censorship at the hands of Iran’s authorities.
I never learned why he was so angry and never spoke about what had happened. Months passed and I did not even talk about this strange incident with my ISNA colleague who had called me that night about the pictures. But one day he himself told me about something unusual that had transpired that night. He said he had edited one of my pictures at 3.30 in the morning and sent it to be posted on the agency’s portal, but within less than half an hour the agency’s director called the agency and ordered the photo to be taken down.
Even now, so many years later, I do not know the back story to this strange, awkward evening; I do not know who that man was, and why he so desperately did not want to be recognized.
It was 2005, the last year of President Mohammad Khatami’s second term, when I decided to publish a book of my photographs. I had covered two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and numerous events during the eight years of Khatami’s reformist presidency. No publisher was ready to bear the cost of publishing such a book, so I sent my selected photos to the Department of Books at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to receive a permit to self-publish.
After a few months of uncertainty, shortly before the election that would bring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, my phone rang. The caller introduced himself as representing the Department of Books and asked me to meet him in Bahrestan Square for a conversation. I turned up on the appointed day. I was directed to a room with a desk and a few chairs, and sat down to wait. There were a few wooden bookcases around with glass doors. Like in all government offices, pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei were hanging on the wall.
Soon a bearded middle-aged man entered the room. He wore a jacket but his white shirt was hanging over his trousers, as was the fashion in government offices. He asked a young man to bring the mockup of my book, and asked why I wanted to print my pictures at my own personal expense. I explained that those pictures were very important to me and I preferred to publish them as a book of photojournalism.
“You mean you want to turn these pictures into a book?” he asked.
I said yes.
He told me the pictures were problematic.I asked why.
He started with a picture of Ayatollah Khamenei. “Why have you chosen a picture of the Supreme Leader with his hand in his pocket when he is leading a prayer session?”
I said because it was dynamic and a picture must have something to say.
He said the picture was offensive, but wouldn’t say why. The next picture was of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Khamenei.
“Why is the Supreme Leader lower than Hashemi in this one?”
I explained that Khamenei was descending a pulpit staircase to participate in prayers, and that it was only natural that he would appear lower. He was descending first. The man played with his rosary, his expression stony.
There were other pictures he had a problem with. But he refused to explain why; just shook his head. And I could not read his mind. Was he following his own subjective sense? Was he channeling what he thought other authorities would mind?
At last he lined up nine pictures, put a blank sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen in front of me, and told me to sign a declaration that I would never publish the photos.
I was in a bind and I had to choose — to publish my book with these imposed omissions, or not to publish at all. I chose the former, haggled a bit further, but to no use. I wrote down the pictures that I was not supposed to publish, until I came to a picture of President Khatami with a praying mantis over his turban. When he told me that I could not publish that one, I put down the pen and got up. “I will not publish this book without this picture,” I said. “This picture was approved by Mr. Khatami himself. I even have a copy that he has signed.”
The moment I said this his eyes showed his surprise. “Mr. Khatami has approved this picture?” he asked. I showed him the picture, it was in my bag, and he said it was still insulting.
“It is not good that a mantis is sitting on the head of Mr. Khatami,” he said. I said it was an important moment for photojournalism. In the end, the president’s signature won me that battle. He related on that image, I signed my letter of commitment and he gave me permission to publish the book.
But the story did not end there. My book The Pulse of Time was at the printers when Ahmadinejad became president. I had a premonition that things would not bode well, but the project had already cost me a lot. I told the printer to hold off until I could take a good picture of Ahmadinejad. On August 3, 2005, when he was kissing the hand of Ayatollah Khamenei during the swearing-in ceremonies, I took the picture that I had been waiting for.
The problem was that I could not add a new picture to the collection because I had signed the commitment. But on the other hand, you can’t report a period without bookending it on each side. I was wondering about what to do when I remembered that I had taken pictures of Ahmadinejad six years earlier when he had appeared at the Special Court of the Clergy, petitioning against the independent newspaper Salam. I went through my archive and found another photo. I printed the picture from the court on the right side and the hand-kissing picture on the opposite page and ask the printer to proceed. But it was a risky thing to do.
When the book was ready, the Department of Books told me I could not distribute unless I changed the cover and cut out Ahmadinejad’s pictures. The problem was that the books were bound and it was practically impossible to change anything. For three or four days I roamed about the building, seeking help. Finally they agreed that if I cut out the pages with Ahmadinejad from all the printed copies, they would disregard the cover picture. So I cut out Ahmadinejad’s pictures one by one with a cutter and the book was distributed. But I managed to save some of the copies from the cutter and sent them to the marketplace. This was how The Pulse of Time was distributed in two versions, with Ahmadinejad and without Ahmadinejad.
It was only natural that the publication of The Pulse of Time with its picture of Ahmadinejad in court against the newspaper Salam led to trouble. Those in the presidential press office had been with Ahmadinejad for years, and they did not appreciate my inclusion of the court picture. When they were established in their positions, they tried to keep me out of official occasions and neglected to send me invitations other photojournalists received. I gave up and decided to work on the social life and the traditions of religious minorities in Iran.
The 2008 Photography Biennial in the city of Yazd coincided with the anniversary of the prophet Zoroaster’s death and the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. I asked for official permission to cover both events and prepared letters to submit to the Bureau of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Yazd. When I showed up at the office, I was told I would not be permitted to photograph any Zoroastrian ceremonies.
I was allowed to cover the Jewish ceremonies conditional on the approval of the Jewish Council. Even though I had permission from the press authorities in Tehran, a local official was blocking me. I decided to go to the elders of Zoroastrian and Jewish communities and ask their permission directly. They very kindly accepted.
As I was taking pictures of the Hanukkah ceremonies at the Jewish temple, a person invited me and Parvaneh Vahidmanesh, a colleague who was working with me on a book about the life of Iranian Jews, to accompany him to the home of a relative for a family party. We gladly accepted, since in Iran it is almost impossible for two Muslims to gain access to the homes of religious minorities unless you are on friendly terms with the individual and his family.
On the way to the home of his relative, as we were walking along winding alleyways, this Jewish compatriot kept talking and I was recording what he was saying on my Canon G9 camera. I thought maybe later we could find a use for it. He talked about his life and the adventures of his family, but much of what he said was not terribly coherent; he seemed to have suffered a great deal. He advocated warm and cordial relations between Iran and Israel and talked about pilgrimage to Israel as a blessing. He was living alone in Iran, as his family had immigrated to Jerusalem.
We soon arrived at his relative’s home, and watched the family and their young children perform the Hanukkah ceremonies meticulously. They lighted the menorah and I took pictures. We talked with the family for about half an hour, said goodbye to them and left.
The next morning as we were returning to Tehran in a rented car, Parvaneh’s phone rang. The caller was the same person who had invited us to his relative’s home the night before. In a frightened voice he begged us not to use the audio and photographs we had taken of him and his family to anyone. He swore in the name of Moses and Mohammad that his life was in danger. It was a strange affair and I promised to erase all the files as soon as I got home, and that he should rest easy.
A few days later a person who introduced himself as Mostafaei from the Intelligence Ministry called me and told me to meet him at 4pm at the offices of the Foreign Media Department, which was now located opposite Tehran Clinic. I went to meet him at the appointed time, a time when the whole building was empty of employees. He asked me about everything – why I had traveled to Yazd, what activities and projects I was involved with. The interrogation went on for about two hours, but mostly friendly, and Mr. Mostafaei tried to show that he knew about everything by pointing out the inconsistencies in my answers.
He kept circling back over old history. Over the pictures I had taken over a decade ago of the dormitory at Tehran University after sleeping students had been attacked in their beds by police and militiamen. That unrest had led to the worst rioting Iran, at that point, had experienced since the 1979 revolution. He told me he still remembered the impact my photos of those days had had. He said he would never, ever forget.
“But 10 years have passed,” I pointed out.
He said he and his friends would remember forever.
At last he got to the point and told me he knew that I had filmed a Jewish man in Yazd. He wanted the file. He got angry when I told him there was no video file, but he controlled himself and said he didn’t know how to answers his superiors. I told him that all the pictures I had taken that night were now online, and he could look at them. But he was not satisfied and told me to come again the next evening to give him the video CD, which I had told him did not exist.
I had erased the video file and had genuinely nothing to give him. Instead, I took black-and-white prints from the pictures that I had taken from the ceremonies in Yazd. It was around eight in the evening when he called and told me to meet him at the intersection of Palestine and Zoroaster Avenues. When I arrived, a black Peugeot pulled up and he was in it. He ordered me to get into the car. He was still expecting that I was going to give him the CD but I told him that there was no video and handed him the prints. He told me I should expect consequences for my actions.
During the few minutes that we were sitting in the car at the intersection, four men, clearly also intelligence agents, stood by the car. They pretended to ask him for directions while they gazed at me, memorizing my face. He said goodbye with annoyance and told me that he would keep track of me.
It was the waning days of 2009 and I had no sense yet of what bitter days awaited me. All I knew was that my every movement was being watched.
In the months leading up to the 2009 presidential election, I was being blackballed everywhere. At all the official occasions journalists were invited to cover, there was a checkmark next to my name on the list and I was not permitted to enter. This uncertainty was quite annoying and even the Foreign Media Department could not tell me about it.
To have something to do I joined the final presidential candidates in their visits whenever possible to take pictures. In February 2009, the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency had organized a tour of the Bushehr nuclear power plant for journalists to cover a meeting between the agency’s chief and his Russian counterpart.
As usual it was the agency that arranged the tickets and of course the list of travelers was drawn up beforehand. I did not expect that I would be on that trip but to my surprise I was called and they told me to be at the airport early in the morning. At seven in the morning, I joined around 50 reporters, cameramen and photographers at the assembly area for Bushehr power plant and went to the dining hall for breakfast. Immediately afterward they read our names to receive a special ID so we could enter the airport.
When my name was announced the person who had my card put it in his pocket and instructed me to follow a colleague of his. I left the group, followed by my cameraman colleague from the Associated Press. We were led to a room outside the main area, which contained a few armchairs and a TV set. No matter how many times we asked what was going on we received no answers.
After an hour, we received an eight-page long security clearance form and were asked to provide complete information about ourselves and our families. What trips had we taken? Did we have a family member who was working against the Islamic Republic? It was clear they were just harassing us, we had given all this information when applying for our press IDs. After five hours they let us go and told us that there had been a mistake.
After returning from Bushehr the situation got worse. One day, less than three weeks before the 2009 presidential election, I was asked to come and meet Mr. Moghadaszadeh, the director of the Ministry’s Foreign Media Department.
At our meeting, he welcomed me with a smile and offered me tea and cookies. He expressed regret that during all the years he had overseen the agency, he had never had a chance to meet me. He talked about how important my work and pictures had been. And then he said that he had received a letter from the Intelligence Ministry, and regretted to inform that I would no longer be permitted to work in Iran. A lump formed in my throat and my voice started to tremble. I mechanically dropped my press card on the desk and got up. He said goodbye and assured me that he and his colleagues would do their best to change the Intelligence Ministry’s position.
My decade-long career ended that day. When I left the room I reviewed what had happened not only in the past months but also in the past years so perhaps I could understand what had befallen me. What happened next was that I lived through the 2009 election uprising, witnessing a defining moment in Iranian history that I could have narrated visually but was not allowed. I accompanied my American photographer colleague who had traveled to Iran to cover the election, and I witnessed many clashes and terrible moments at his side, but without capturing them. It was deeply painful.
On the first day of protests against the election results, I saw a policeman beating a woman on the head with a baton in Fatemi Square. Even now, so many years later, that scene flashes in my mind, and I ask myself why I could not have captured it. I am Iranian and a visual storyteller, but I could not and did not tell the story of those days. The regime had censored me, and I could not, as I had in 1999, document history.