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Society & Culture

The Publisher or the Censor: Who Should Hold the Blade?

September 9, 2013
Nafiseh Yeganeh
9 min read
The Publisher or the Censor: Who Should Hold the Blade?
The Publisher or the Censor: Who Should Hold the Blade?

The Publisher or the Censor: Who Should Hold the Blade?

Just a month into his job as Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ali Jannati has Iran's publishers deeply worried. Although he is not considered especially hardline and took office as part of President Hassan Rouhani so-called “moderation cabinet,” Jannati's recent comments about censorship have unsettled Iranian writers and publishers alike. “We must define the legal frameworks transparently and make them available to the publishers, so that they would self-regulate,” Jannati said.

In his first major policy announcement as culture minister, Jannati proposed an overhaul of the country's censorship process, describing a new scheme he called “post-publication censorship,” a state of affairs that would expect “the publisher himself [to] know whether his book fits the regulations or not.” The new policy seems intentionally hazy, and raises the inevitable question: would post-publication censorship effectively do away with censorship in most cases, or simply create a new censorship regime that is more troublesome and costly for publishers?

Up until today, book censorship in Iran has involved the Ministry reviewing manuscripts prior to publication and deleting whatever words, sentences, or content considered against regulations. Publishers would either then release the book with the censored parts cut out, or in agreement with the author, decide to forego publication altogether.

But if, as Jannati seems to be suggesting, publishers themselves are to assume the responsibility of censoring their own books, they will need to anticipate or simply guess what content would be frowned on by the Ministry, and make the cuts themselves in advance of publication. One problem with this approach, of course, is that it transfers the ethical and moral dilemma of censorship onto publishers, who have until now been morally and artistically been aligned with authors.

The new policy, many say publishers and writers say, encourages and effectively asks for, publishers and writers in Iran argue, a pre-emptive self-censorship that could result in works being censored far more extensively than they would have been otherwise. The impulse to over-censor would arise from the consequences: if the book is published and Ministry officials do not approve the nature and extent of the censorship, they can collect and destroy all copies of the book, burning the publisher's investment.

An author who formerly worked for Cheshmeh Publishing, however, said the Ministry's new approach could actually create more freedom for publishing houses by transferring final responsibility onto the publisher. “Publishers can establish a trade union and develop guidelines for doing this. The union can consult with the publishers and develop uniform procedures and define what can and cannot be done based on group decision making.” The author said that during the first term of the reformist former president Mohammad, Khatami, many books were published with the publishing houses’ responsibility and nothing happened.

Can Wine Be Wine, or Must it Be Sour Cherry Juice?

Previously, when publishers submitted a book to the Ministry, the reviewer would often  demand various deletions or revisions. Because censors do not follow specific guidelines for their job, a number of unwritten but generally understood principles emerged, which publishers themselves heeded in order to expedite the time it would take the Ministry to review and issue a printing permit. While some general guidelines emerged over time, a number of issues of content and style have remained ambiguous, since the Ministry doesn't employ a clear set of guidelines. One censor, for example, might cut out names of alcoholic beverages, while another might let them stand.

Mehrdad Kazemzadeh, head of Maziar Publishers, told the ILNA news agency that Jannati's proposed approach was simply not feasible. “At present the different approaches  censors take with respect to words and similar meanings is quite apparent and as naturally publishers have different tastes too,” he said. “If after publishing a book the censors wish to scrutinize the publishers’ tastes, it will be mayhem.”

The problems Iranian publishers face with book censorship will not be alleviated by post-publication censorship, an author with long experience writing for the film industry told Iranwire. He said as long as censors redact books based on personal tastes and prejudices,    publishing will not be able to respond effectively at either stage of the process. “The problem is not in the law, the problem is in the different tastes of the censors,” he said. The government must write and implement specific laws and guidelines around censorship, and then allow publishers a chance to adjust to those nuances. “Otherwise, many books will fall victim to suspicions of the censors,” he said.

Kazemzadeh echoed these sentiments in his comments to ILNA, arguing that even today, over three decades after the revolution, publishers still don't know where the red lines are. “If publishers are entrusted with censorship, they will face various problems and will unwittingly turn into censors themselves,” he said. “The Minister’s statements attempt to throw the ball in the publishers’ court in order to remove the criticism from the Audit [censorship] Office.”

The Looming Judiciary

By asking publishers to act as censors, Kazemzadeh said, the government was also making publishers and writers vulnerable to legal action and imprisonment. “They would continually summon the publishers to court to prosecute them. And if we went to object to the Ministry and the Book Office, they would shift the blame and say the Judiciary is pursuing the case, that it has nothing to do with them,” he said.

But Shahla Lahiji, a doyen of Iranian publishing who heads Roshangaran and Women Studies Publishers, told ILNA that, “in a lawful system, only the Judiciary can identify a crime and issue a ruling for the suspect.”

Publishers Banding Together

The immediate question is whether it's even feasible for Iranian publishers, through their professional association or some other coalition, to create an editorial system that stipulates the do's and don'ts for content.  A Tehran-based writer who has been involved in literary publishing for years says, “the most important publishers, such as Cheshmeh, Ney, Markaz, and Sales are together, but I don’t know how well they can reach consensus about what's permissible and what is not.”

Another Tehran-based author tells Iranwire he's skeptical about publishers banding together to agree on censorship guidelines.  “Publishing in Iran is not monolithic, each house has its own methods, styles and views,” he says, a fact that's often apparent in the Association's votes on various issues. “No matter what happens, the publishers will have to act individually. Could they create any kind of unity over the past eight years with all the problems that emerged?”

Many publishers say they are fundamentally against Jannati's post-publication censorship  model.  Mahmoud Amouzegar, the Secretary of Tehran Publishers and Booksellers Association, said his organization is prefers the current approach, where the state vets content before publication. “Ifa book goes to print with the approval of the publishers, but is not issued a distribution license later and is ordered to be destroyed, nothing will be left of the frail publishing industry.”

“After 30 years, I know the red lines. Under such circumstances, the existence of censors is fundamentally meaningless, because the publisher is and has always been responsible for what he/she publishes.” Shahla Lahiji told ILNA.

But Mr. Amouzegar, secretary of the Publishers Association, disagrees, and says that publishers often don't know which words will cause the censor to quibble, or which might be acceptable. He fears post-publication censorship would impose enormous costs on the industry, which already suffers high costs due to various factors, but including paper shortages and government-controlled paper costs. “So long as the laws and regulations are not corrected, what difference does it make whether the censorship takes place before or after publication?” he says. “What difference does it make whether the publisher is left behind this door or that door?”

Censorship can be so unpredictable that authors are left feeling deeply vulnerable, with some electing to publish less than 250 copies of their books. The poet Javid Mohammadi has struggled over the past decade to publish his work, and met with resistance and stonewalling from the government. He published his first collection, “Tired of Anxiety” with Gouyeh Publishers in 2002. Since then he says has submitted three other books for a publication license. “My books were either lost inside the Ministry, were rejected [outright], or had so much they wanted me to take out that I decided not to publish it at all,” Mohammadi told ISNA. As a result, he decided to publish under the “under-250 copies” rule, which by Ministry guidelines holds that any work published in under 250 copies is not considered a book but a pamphlet and does not require a license. “Of course, the legal and judicial responsibility of the publication still remains with the author,” Mohammadi said.

Literature, the Main Victim

The past few years have not been kind to the publishing industry. Authorities denied dozens of books, mostly literary, the right to publish, and even banned the release of books that had been previously published under the Khatami presidenc. A number of works by Iran's most distinguished twentieth century authors, such as Sadegh Hedayat and Houshang Golshiri, found their licenses revoked, as did books by the prominent writers Massoud Behnoud and Abbas Maroufi.

The Ministry even saw fit to ban works by the Islamic Republic's founders. “Towards Destiny,” Volume 7 of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s memoirs was initially banned, and later censored. The collection of writings by Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti, the late Islamic scholar and jurist and one of regime's founders, now faces a limited distribution license and has been banned in some cases.

Iranians have always read eagerly international authors in translation, but authorities have  denied licenses to a number of translated books of favorites like William Faulkner, Federico García Lorca, and Paulo Coelho have also been banned.

Even academic text books have not been spared: Principals of Cardiovascular Diseases-Fifth Edition, Principles of Kidney Diseases-Third Edition, and Principles of Lung Diseases-Second Edition, all written by Mostafa Alavi, were among the dozens of banned scientific books.

Abbas Maroufi, an author who has been living outside Iran for several years, and whose books have been re-published many times during the past years, told IranWire that some of his books have been printed, but remain in warehouses because their publication licenses have been revoked. His publisher, ‎Qoqnoos Publications, plans to negotiate new publication licenses with the new team at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

Maroufi says that the licenses to his books have remained revoked since 2010, because “books by authors who live outside Iran are not issued licenses and if a publisher acts to the contrary, his operation license will be suspended for three months.”

Prior to his appointment as minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ali Jannati promised to remove the obstacles facing Iranian publishers and writers and to eliminate the various regulations that plague both the viability of the financial model of Iranian publishing and the creative space writers inhabit. It remains to be seen whether his pre-publication scheme will chip away at the limitations or simply add to them. Some in the industry fear this approach will ultimately intensify censorship, and more destructively, encourage a culture of self-censorship that transfers the moral and aesthetic dirty work of bowdlerizing literature onto publishers and writers. Some however see a streamlined model that may make publishing more efficient. Time will tell what this corner of the Rouhani government will hold for the future of books in Iran. 


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