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Society & Culture

Censorship, Iranian Style: The Midnight Watch

May 12, 2016
Ehsan Mehrabi
14 min read
Censorship, Iranian Style: The Midnight Watch
Censorship, Iranian Style: The Midnight Watch

Censorship, Iranian Style: The Midnight Watch


All Iranian journalists have experienced some degree of censorship, to the point where many have simply internalized the censor’s voice, whether it be scolding about the supreme leader or Palestine. But in Iran, the climate for censorship is not static. It shifts according to the prevailing political climate. You might imagine that the censor is a government bureaucrat sitting in some anonymous office, wielding a black pen. But often, censorship began closer to home, with the managing editor of the newspaper itself, depending on his – and it was always his – subjective tastes and political affiliations.

At the newspaper where I worked for years, Hambestegi, censorship first occurred at the hands of the secretary-general of the Hambastegi (“Solidarity”) Party, Mohammad-Reza Rahchamani, who was also effectively the paper’s managing editor. In Iran, where there is no real liberty for political parties, parties often function through newspapers, which has a distorting influence on the journalism produced. Rahchamani read each page of the newspaper every night and censored large swathes. We nicknamed him “Midnight Watch.”

Hambastegi started publishing in October 2000 after the mass shutdown of newspapers earlier that year, the historically black day for Iran’s press when the supreme leader called newspapers the bastions of the enemy. 

From the very beginning it pushed its red lines further than the banned newspapers. For example, the banned newspapers used the phrase “His Leadership” when publishing statements by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei but Hambastegi instead used “His Exalted Leadership.”

In the early days, the in-house censorship usually involved the cutting of parts of stories, but after a while into grew into killing whole articles. In the early months of the paper’s life, the top editor completely spiked a short report on rivalries among Israel’s political groups headlined “Israel against Israel.” The paper’s foreign news editor did not consider the piece controversial so he included it in the next issue, but Rahchamani removed it again. He explained that publishing this story would be enough to lead to the shutdown of several newspapers, let alone one.

Then came the time when whole pages were censored. One immediate problem this created was finding replacement material at midnight. Editors usually prepared replacements to fill out empty spaces, but like at other newspapers, they went home after the editor-in-chief and the managing editor or his deputy read and signed the pages, not knowing that within a few hours Rahchamani would get his hands on their pages. Within weeks, it became so common for Rahchamani to strike out whole pages that we had to start recycling old stories from past issues, just to fill the space. 

This practice often carried unintended and amusing consequences. Before Rahchamani was appointed head of the Welfare Organization during President Khatami’s second term, Hambastegi had published a scathing criticism of the organization. One night he removed a whole page and told the page designer to replace it with an old one. But he did not wait to review the replacement page and went home. The page designer replaced the page with the old critical report on the Welfare Organization. Everyone was puzzled after this issue came out. They could not understand why a newspaper published by the Welfare Organization’s new head would run such a story. And the public relations folks at the Welfare Organization could not decide whether to respond to a newspaper run by their boss.

Eventually, the censorship of complete pages starting taking hours every night, and often Rahchamani was not happy even after some pages had been replaced several times. Some nights there were so many drafts that the printer could not figure out which was the final version. Often Rahchamani would order office employees or even the guards to review the pages and make sure that the necessary changes were made.


When Sharon Said “Occupied Palestine”

When he censored political stories, Rahchamani had no qualms about removing certain words or adding some of his own. For example, if somebody had said “This action by the judiciary is political” he would change it to, “It appears it is better if the judiciary does not behave in a political manner.”

Sometimes his changes to direct quotations were hilarious. In one report he changed all references to “Israel” to “Occupied Palestine,” so the newspaper directly quoted Israeli Prime Minister Sharon as saying  “Occupied Palestine”.

This turned the report into a parody, but as hard as they tried, the paper’s editor could not convince him that you simply could not change “Israel” to “Occupied Palestine” in a direct quote. He proceeded because he feared any mention of “Israel” would lead to the shutdown of his newspaper.

But despite all his precautions, Hambastegi was shut down for a few weeks in August 2001 anyway. The paper had published statements by Rasoul Mehrparvar, a member of parliament, about the Iraqi citizenship of Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, then head of Iran’s judiciary. In an interview Mehrparvar had mentioned that in the first presidential election after the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini had opposed the candidacy of Jalaleddin Farsi because his ancestors were from Afghanistan. He argued that if senior regime figures with foreign ancestry could not take high office, then naturally Shahroudi was not the right choice to head the judiciary.

Following the temporary ban on the newspaper, Rahchamani met with Abbas-Ali Alizadeh, head of Tehran’s Justice Bureau who, according to Rahchamani, talked with Shahroudi and helped get the ban lifted. In the 2000s, Hambastegi was the only newspaper that the authorities permitted to resume publication after a temporary ban. For all other banned newspapers, temporary became permanent.

After the ban was lifted, Rahchamani became so cautious that he ordered his staff to only publish stories from state news agencies and to dispense entirely with producing their copy.

In September 2001, the film director Tahmineh Milani was arrested as a result of an interview that she gave to Hambastegi on the occasion of the release of her movie, The Hidden Half. Rahchamani scolded the arts and culture editor. “Didn’t I tell you to print only news from IRNA [Islamic Republic News Agency] and ISNA [Iranians Students’ News Agency]?” he said, furious.

She answered that the published piece was an interview, not news. Rahchamani then ordered that all future interviews must be sourced from news agencies as well.

After resuming publication Hambastegi changed managing editors a few times. Gholam-Heydar Ebrahimby Salami, the original managing editor who had turned the management over to Rahchamani, returned for a few months in 2001 until he was removed from his position after Ebrahim Asgharzadeh was elected secretary-general of the Hambastegi party. Asgharzadeh himself ran the newspaper for a while until Ali Salehabadi was chosen as the managing editor.

During their tenures, Gholam-Heydar Ebrahimby Salami and Ebrahim Asgharzadeh tried to improve the quality of the newspaper and to attempt braver stories. But under Rahchamani censorship was so fierce that the paper’s staff slowly departed, and after two years, no member of the original team was left.

At Hambastegi, it was not only the usual, implicit restrictions that resulted in censorship, but also the personal concerns and interests of the managers. One censored story that led to much uproar amongst the staff was a report about Iranian women who married Afghan men. Rahman-Gholi Gholizadeh, deputy managing editor, read the report to a meeting of Khorasani political activists and after hearing their views, removed the story. Usually managing editors consulted lawyers or the editorial board when they had concerns about a story, but Gholizadeh had consulted political activists who had no experience in publishing.

He believed that publishing a report that outlined how some Iranian women had resorted to marrying Afghan men might lead the judiciary to make a complaint against the paper. There would be inevitable problems for these women in securing Iranian citizenship for their children – a legal restriction that was controversial in Iran. He also worried the report would offend the dignity of Iranian women.

Sometimes the paper’s editorial board would drop stories simply because various activists or concerned parties would show up at the head office, lobbying for what they deemed too sensitive or undermining to be cut. It was also common to block news about individuals with whom the managing editor had personal problems. One managing editor once asked the political editor not to publish anything about the spokesman for President Khatami’s administration, because he, the editor, had asked him for a meeting a number of times but he had been ignored.

As to be expected, publishing any critical story or news about a friend or business associate of the managing editor was next to impossible.


Garbled Pieces and Gentle Directives

Sometimes censorship produces articles that became meaningless after being chopped up. Iranian journalism often features prose that is poetic. In the special issue for the first anniversary of Hambastegi, I wrote a poetic story about Hamid Kaviani, the former editor of political affairs of the newspaper who had been kidnapped for a day and tortured, after writing about a jury member at the Special Court for Clergy who also happened to close to the supreme leader. After some passages were clumsily cut out, the whole piece became unintelligible. It was in this way that redaction, though in practice only slicing out “problematic” passages, rendered so many of our articles simply meaningless.

In the early years of Hambastegi, before the tenure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was unusual for the Supreme National Security Council to issue coverage guidelines on particular subjects. What the council did was to have meetings to “prep” journalists for important events. For example, before President Khatami spoke publicly about the production of nuclear fuel by Iranian scientists, the Supreme National Security Council held a meeting to inform editors-in-chief and to suggest, implicitly, how that news should be framed.

Likewise, when authorities lifted the house arrest of dissident cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the council informed editors about the news and gave them some guidelines. In one famous case, the council faxed a directive through IRNA around midnight that nothing – neither positive nor negative – should be published about Ayatollah Taheri, the then Friday Prayers leader for Isfahan.

In 2004 I left Hambastegi to join the newspaper Tose’e. Like Hambastegi, this newspaper had also changed managing editors over time and it started with a new team before the 2005 presidential election. On the eve of the election and with this new team in place, the paper’s coverage was punchier. It published more detailed news about political prisoners and sensitive groups like the National Front or the Council of Nationalist-Religious Activists. One whole page was devoted to news about human rights.

The newspaper even published pictures and stories about Ayatollah Montazeri and critical figures such as Ebrahim Yazdi; it covered the calls for a wholesale boycott of the 2005 presidential election. Part of the reason for this was that the authorities, as ever, loosened their grip around the campaign period. A more lively media encourages voter participation, and that has always mattered to the state.


The Views of Ayatollah Khamenei on Etemad-e Melli Columnists

After Ahmadinejad was elected president, the opposition figure Mehdi Karroubi founded the Etemad-e Melli (National Trust) party and a newspaper with the same name. At the time, Karroubi had good relations with the supreme leader, and the atmosphere at Etemad-e Melli felt safer than other newspapers. Interestingly, the supreme leader occasionally shared his views with Karroubi, during their personal meeting, on columns written by various political figures. In certain cases, this resulted in them gently being asked to contribute less frequently.

Etemad-e Melli also published columns written by a number of writers and journalists living outside Iran, something that in these days is almost impossible for Iranian newspapers to do.

But even then, there were certain clerical figures, dissidents, whose views were unwelcome. We were forced to heavily redact a news story about a speech given by Mohsen Kadivar at the home of Abdollah Nouri. At first, the text filled one page of the newspaper, but an editor removed one-fourth of the page; then another editor removed a further fourth. In the end the report was reduced to one-fourth of the original page, a fragmented narrative of the speech that made so little sense that the editors decided to drop the piece completely. One of the editors kept a copy of this page as a memento.

For me and a number of colleagues, what was even more painful than censorship as a result of the regime’s sensitivities was censorship that arose in-house. Once I wrote a column entitled “Trepidations of A Revolutionary Sheikh” that mentioned Behzad Nabavi, a member of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution of Iran Organization who was disqualified from running for various parliamentary elections. Karroubi objected to the article and summoned me to his office. During our meeting, I noticed that a member of his party also present had circled passages that referred to the Mojahedin Organization in red. Party politics was the censoring hand, not the state.


After the 2009 Election

After the 2009 presidential election, I served as parliamentary correspondent for the newspaper Farhikhtegan. In the early days it was possible to publish news about protests against the election results or the widespread arrests, but after a while such news was totally banned. The ban included even reports from the parliament itself that related to protests against the election results.

Gradually the only news about the Green Movement protests that could be published were threats by authorities. For example, during the inauguration ceremonies for Ahmadinejad at the parliament, supporters of the Green Movement called a rally, but we could only publish reports after MPs declared the rally illegal. Dissent could not be news, only the banning of dissent.

Then there was the day Ahmadinejad arrived at parliament by helicopter. The newspaper only published a reference when the report was denied. Again, the news could not be news, only denials of reality.

After a while, asking questions about the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election became problematic even in the hallways of parliament. Reporters for state broadcasting told journalists that they had been ordered to record all conversations in the hallways, and even chats between reporters and MPs. One afternoon, I was questioning an MP on the committee that was charged with investigating the election unrest. Our exchange became heated, and looking over, I saw that a cameraman for state television had recorded everything we had said.

I was arrested in early 2010 and spent a year in prison. I could no longer work in journalism, but talking with colleagues, I heard that it had become increasingly difficult for them to work. In the past, for example, it had not been deeply problematic to publish critical stories about officials of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. But one day, visiting a friend at a news agency, I heard the staff fretting about publishing a statement by the House of Cinema criticizing the ministry’s deputy in charge of cinema.

During my arrest, my interrogators claimed that some of my writing had presented unduly pessimistic portrayals of the state of the country. I thought that the same way that journalists dream of a world without censorship, censors are probably unhappy as well, and wish for a day when there would be no independent media altogether.


The Awkwardness of Freedom

After I left Iran it took me a long while to get used to working in a free environment. Years of censorship and self-censorship affect a person both directly and indirectly. It is common for journalists emerging out of a repressive environment to continue, by impulse, to self-censor, to make errors of judgment around journalistic ethics. In the Islamic Republic, sometimes the boundaries between professional journalistic ethics and regime censorship are confused. Sometimes a reporter might restrain himself in writing for professional ethical reasons, but this is a thing apart from censorship by the regime. What are the reasons we should, as professional journalists, withhold from publishing certain things? What are the reasons why we should not? Can unfettered freedom confuse those who have worked for years in the hazy realm of layered censorship? Inevitably. But hopefully, not always. 


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. 


More stories in this series:

“I could not document history”

When Stories Kill

The Seven Obstacles to Publishing Books in Iran

All Beards Are Sacred

The Working Journalist in an Atmosphere of Terror


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