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Society & Culture

Censorship, Iranian Style: A Tragicomedy

June 20, 2016
Masoud Behnoud
24 min read
Behnoud in court. His wife and brother sit behind him.
Behnoud in court. His wife and brother sit behind him.
Behnoud in 1965, during his seminary education
Behnoud in 1965, during his seminary education

From the earliest time that censorship emerged in Iran, it was a strange creature that spawned countless humorous anecdotes.

From the beginning, the censors did not know exactly what they were supposed to do; they only knew that they had to censor. The 19th century king Nasseruddin Shah ordered his chief of police to be on guard against subversive literature entering Iran, but the chief of police did not know how to go about it and this was a big headache. The same is true in the age of the internet. The government wants to limit access to the internet, but first it must decide what is forbidden and identify the offenders. Besides, the people in charge of implementing the orders must have a precise understanding of how the internet works, how it is structured and how access to it can be limited. The situation is similar to an old Iranian joke: the head of the radio tells his subordinates to find out when the mullahs go to bed and broadcast music only after they have fallen asleep. The employees say, “But how are we to know? Some mullahs stay awake at night to pray for extra credit from heaven.”

Across the world censorship is a tragedy. In Iran it continues to be a tragicomedy.


Nasseruddin Shah (1848-1896): The First Censor

The Qajar King Nasseredin Shah was the first monarch to formally enshrine censorship. He ordered Tehran’s French police commander to prevent the spread of subversive material among the people. At the time, there were no printing presses in Iran and the danger came from what was printed in India and Istanbul. So the police hired two people and assigned them to the post office to make sure that the packages coming into the country contained no forbidden material. But who was to know what was forbidden and what was not? So they charged Mohammad-Hossein Foroughi, a learned intellectual, with the task of going to the police station every week to read what was set aside and kept from its intended recipients. If he concluded something was subversive it would not be delivered.

Almost immediately the control of postal communication proved inadequate. Forbidden material found its way into the country. Of course no newspapers were printed inside Iran and all the print press came from outside, but people passed around the two or three copies that did find their way inside the country. The government was so worried that when a copy was found in the home of Yousef Khan Mostashar al-Dowleh, a prominent figure in the king’s foreign ministry, he was imprisoned on the king’s command.

These elaborate precautions did little for Nasseredin Shah. In 1896 the king was assassinated by a man who had read the forbidden writings of Seyyed Jamal ad-Din Asadabadi, an ideologue of Islamic modernism who had decided his mission was to uproot tyranny in Iran.

After the assassination of the king, new ideas and perspectives flooded into Iran and led to the 1905 Constitutional Revolution. This is exactly the sort of dynamic that frightens despots, since freedom of expression means the death of dictatorships. But more than a century of censorship should make it clear that with all the resources that various governments have deployed, with all the ill will they have created and all the injustices they have committed, it is naked force that keeps tyrannical governments in power, not the strength of the censorship they impose.


Reza Shah (1925-1941): Fear of Communism

After the Constitutional Revolution, Iran enjoyed a relatively long period of political and civic freedom. This openness included freedom of expression, and lasted around 13 years, from 1909 when constitutionalist revolutionaries overthrew the despotic Qajar king Mohammad-Ali Shah to 1921, when the future Reza Shah overthrew the Qajar dynasty in a coup d’état. This was the longest period in Iranian history where people lived freely from the chains of tyrannical government. In this short period, newspapers came alive, people grew more intimately familiar with the rest of the world, education improved, modern schools emerged, and both the low and the high were motivated to seek knowledge.

But, alas, two factors prevented Iran from becoming the first country in the region to safely leave despotism behind. The first was people’s ignorance about the principles of freedom. More than 90 percent of Iranians were illiterate, and freedom led to chaos and lawlessness in practice. The second factor that pushed this era to a close was World War I, which ended in the collapse of the two neighboring empires—Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman empire, which claimed it was the Islamic Caliphate. Great Britain, the third empire and the nominal undisputed victor in Europe, was impoverished due to the Great War. It had no other option but to downsize its military in the region in order to help its own beleaguered people. At the same time, Britain sought to surround the new Soviet Union with a wall of strong governments in order to prevent Communism from spreading, but with minimum cost to itself.

So it was that the British generals and diplomats who were fleeing the region improvised governments that were not obliged to serve England but required to be powerful enough to block the infiltration of Communism. It was this historical moment that gave birth to the Pahlavi government and ended the Qajar dynasty after 200 years. The new government was powerful and restored calm and security, but it also tossed aside many of the freedoms achieved by the Constitutional Revolution. Soon, the climate reverted to the same degree of oppressiveness that had held under Nasseredin Shah.

The government passed a law that criminalized communist activities. The law perhaps was not a bad solution for protecting a country neighboring the Soviet Union; in practice, it worked. But did the police informers know precisely what constituted communist activity? A group of people studying physics with Dr. Taqi Arani, a leftist activist, were almost executed. When the authorities stayed their executions, they were turned into heroes, which they were not. And after Reza Shah’s death, these heroes prepared to create the Tudeh Party, the first modern communist party in Iran. Of course when they grew old and lost their homeland, they discovered how badly they had been mistaken, and grew disillusioned. But until that time, many idealists lost their lives by joining the party.

Safeguarding security turned into a tool for limiting freedom of speech and putting pressure on the intellectuals and educated. Otherwise the new government quickly made the illiterate and the masses obedient. But censorship became more of a comedy. With the assassination of the poet and political writer Mirzadeh Eshghi, the death of the journalist and poet Mohammad Farrokhi Yazdi and the attempted assassination of the scholar and poet Malek o-Sho'ara Bahar, newspapers got the message, bowed before the Pahlavi government and held their tongues. But soon after came the radio.

By the orders of Reza Shah, the police were required to issue a permit to each Iranian buying a radio, and to assign a policeman to monitor and inform on them. The first radio buyers were at most about 150 merchants, Qajar princes and rich and educated individuals. Nobody paid attention to the fact that most policemen could not even read or write, let alone understand whether the babbling coming from behind the high garden walls of those affluent homes was Russian, German or English. Their reports became a chapter in Iran’s history of satire. But harassing people was not funny. It should be suffice to say that even the word “worker” was censored and changed to “laborer.”

Some read a history of Egypt translated by Ali Javaher-Kalam, which was licensed and encouraged by the royal court. But the illiterate police censored the tale, believing the book to be an affront to Princess Fawzia of Egypt, who was then married to Crown Prince Mohammad Reza.

In one scene, a musical show, a character sings about another character who wants to take a wife but wishes for the narrator to pay for it. The illiterate police summoned the director, and the police commander shouted at him, “You’re trying to say that they got a wife for the crown prince but the businessmen had to pay for it.” The director later said that such a thought had never crossed his mind.

The word “worker” was banned but around the same time, Taghi Arani received a license to publish a newspaper called The Materialist. Arani was a presentable and dignified-looking man. When he went to the police headquarters, the police chief stood up in a sign of respect and asked him the meaning of “materialist.” Arani answered that “’matter’ is the most important thing. It is what we call ‘mother’. The Westerners call it ‘matter’...” And with such nonsense explanations he received a license to publish his newspaper.

After a few years, the writers, the poets and the journalists figured out what they could and could not write and how to bypass the censors to say what they wanted to say.


Moharram-Ali Khan, A Symbol of Censorship

The story of censorship in Iran is not complete without the inclusion of a well-known name who became an almost mythical creature: Moharram-Ali Khan, a police sergeant who censored the press from the time of Reza Shah to the early 1960s. I met him early in my career when I was around 17. By that time he had been the “press expert” for 30-some years and was old and decrepit. My editor-in-chief was away and in his absence I was responsible for taking the last look at the issue before it went to press. There was a mistake; a picture of the Shah had been swapped with one of Hitler. I was inexperienced and had little inkling about the gravity of responsibility. The next morning they stormed the printing house. The moment that I got to the alley, someone grabbed my hand from behind, twisted it and pushed me into the backseat of a Mercedes. I was a pampered creature, had never been to a police station and was frightened to death. It was a great shock for me to be arrested in this manner.

I am embarrassed to admit it, but I cried all the way until we arrived at the police station. When they deposited me with Moharram-Ali Khan, he began striking my hand with his pen and saying, “You dog! Eh? His Majesty?” Then he would then go away. He just repeated the same thing: “You dog! Eh? His Majesty?” It scared me more that he said nothing else. In the evening they threw me in a small cell. The walls, the ceiling and the floor were covered with white tile, exactly like a bathroom.

A couple of hours after midnight the steel door opened with a noise, exactly like in the movies except that it was Moharram-Ali Khan who was standing there. He was smoking a cigarette in slippers. He threw a blanket at me and said “you twerp!” He had a strange accent. “You twerp,” he said. “I took care of Farrokhi Yazdi. You are a nobody.” At the time I did not know who Farrokhi Yazdi was but later when I read about him and learned what had happened to him in prison, I was belatedly terrified. Anyhow, it seems that my family were scrambling and had found an influential person to secure my release. The higher-ups had notified Moharram-Ali Khan that I was susceptible to cold and so he brought me a blanket. I heard him shouting at the head guard “It’s this boy’s first time. Why didn’t you give him a blanket in this cold weather?”

Years later when he died I went to his funeral at the invitation of his family and made a little speech. “You all praised him,” I said. “Now let somebody from the other side talk about him, somebody who was his prisoner. He was a mild-mannered man. The Iranian press is in his debt because he chose “Matbou’at” [The Press] as his family name.” Yes, his family name was “The Press”.


The Cat and Mouse Game

Moharram-Ali Khan was famous for his toughness both in his redactions and in his treatment of journalists, but in practice he did not censor in all cases. In that period governments were changing constantly and variously issued orders to gag one newspaper or another. But Moharram-Ali Khan was clever; he knew that such orders would not last. The day after or the day after that, the government was going to change and new ministers or members of the parliament would emerge from the same newspaper that had previously criticized the government. Except when the shah or important national matters were concerned, he was not in the habit of splitting hairs. In those cases he would call the manager of the printing house and order him to put a bundle of copies outside. The message was that the newspaper was going to be shut down and he needed copies as evidence.

As Moharram-Ali grew older, he lost control of his bladder and when he visited newspaper offices to inspect articles he continuously had to use the bathroom. Many times when he was in the bathroom, mischievous and daring journalists would lock the door and go away. Once he was locked in the bathroom until morning when his driver came and saved him.

In the period of freedom after the downfall of Reza Shah, censorship became a game of cat and mouse and sometimes it was just as amusing. But it was also during this time that the journalists Mohammad Masoud and Ahmad Dehghan were assassinated and the political activist and newspaper editor Karampour Shirazi died in prison under torture. Even then, the game could turn dangerous and deadly.


Early 1970s: The Worst Period of Censorship

In the early 1960s, the authorities transferred responsibility for censorship from the national police to the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Arts and Culture. For a while the Bureau of Publications and Propaganda took charge and then the Ministry of Information and Tourism. In this period, censorship was more streamlined. But after 1966 and especially at the end of the decade when guerrilla movements emerged and violence flared, the Shah’s Savak, the secret police, started to interfere. Savak did not view the Ministry of Information as efficient. From then on the press had to deal with both the Ministry of Information and Tourism and the Savak.

From 1974 to 1976, every night a gentleman would call the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and give him a list of do’s and don’ts. Sometimes he specified that the length of a report on a certain topic must not exceed a certain limit. So the editors began to keep a record book. On the left page we wrote the do’s and on the right we had the don’ts. The do’s – for example, write something about the Persian Gulf or against Saudi Arabia – were few. But the don’ts were many. Not that they were all important. For example, one of the don’ts was about the news that a dead mouse had been found in a can of a brand-name cooking oil. Or we were not to publish the news that the actor Behrouz Vosoughi had gotten into a fight. Or they ordered us not to print pictures of the singers Homayra and Hayedeh.

When a government extends its control continuously and believes that it has the duty to police the press then it ends up issuing such directives as well. It was enough for a government official to call an official of the ministry with a suggestion and then the ministry would order the press to do it.

Let me give you another example. At one time a person by the name of Gholam-Abbas Aram was the foreign minister. The minister did not like the “Gholam” part of his name, which literally means “slave.” Our colleagues heard of this sensitivity, began referring to him in headlines by his full name, just to annoy him. Eventually the censors intervened and ordered that he must be referred to as “Abbas Aram.”


Secret Police in Newspaper Offices

From 1974 onwards, Savak did not trust the agents of the Information Ministry, so much so that it started issuing orders and pressuring newspapers directly. As far as I know, this period, from 1971 to 1976, was the most difficult one for the press in 50 years. For about a year and a half, an agent would come to the offices of the three top Iranian newspapers – Ettela’at, Kayhan and Ayandegan – to directly control their work. The agent would sit next to the editor-in-chief until he reviewed the pages and sent them to be printed. He would leave around two in the morning. Eventually it was the Savak agent, not the editor, who was deciding how many columns to allot a story and what should or should not appear on the front page.

Such a thing had never happened before, not even under Nasseredin Shah. For all intents and purposes, the Savak agent became the editor-in-chief. At the newspaper Ayandegan, our agent was a gentleman by the name of Colonel Farid. We had no idea whether he was really a colonel or not but that is what he called himself. He would arrive at 6 pm and sit in the editorial room, either on the phone with friends or reading newspapers. He was a harmless guy. When the reporters brought the news to the editor-in-chief, he would go and sit next to him and went over some words or sentences. Sometimes he would call a higher-up to ask for instructions.

It was during this period that Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda and his wife got divorced. We received a categorical order that the prime minister did not want more than a sentence of coverage: “With the permission of His Majesty Shahanshah Aria-Mehr, the Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda and Leila Emami have separated.” You might find it funny that the prime minister’s divorce required the permission of the king, but at that time, everything and anything needed His Majesty’s permission. It was not limited to important figures. Some people would have wedding invitations which, for example, read “With the blessing of His Majesty Shahanshah Aria-Mehr, Hooshang and Fattaneh shall be married...”

We discussed the divorce story with Colonel Farid and argued that it was an important story and required more space. But he refused. We asked him for permission to add a short biography of the wife or at the very least print when they were married. “No. Do not add even one line. Print the news in one column,” he said.

So we decided to play with the one column that we were permitted. The same day Hoveyda had visited some locality, but was not wearing the usual orchid he wore in his lapel. We ran a picture from that visit next to the one-column news item about the divorce. It became a four-column story. Formally it was still one column, but we did not include the usual line that separates the stories and the colonel was none the wiser. In the morning when the newspaper came out, journalists from other papers complained that Ayandegan had received preferential treatment. Colonel Farid called and complained that we had hoodwinked him.

Sometime later, Hoveyda paid a visit to the newspaper Ettela’at. The satirist Hadi Khorsandi addressed him. “You’re really a nice guy and these newspapers that disobey you are wicked. We know that you’re very generous and tell them nothing. For example, the news about raises in government salaries was supposed to be printed in one column, but these rabble-rousers ran it in four. You know how they did it? They got a picture from the singer Aghasi and placed it next to that one-column news to make it a four-column story.” Then he paused. Hoveyda said he didn’t get the joke. “Sir, Aghasi has a limp but so does the news that you gave us. They share the same subject and that is how the news about salary raises became four columns.”


The Islamic Republic: Illiterate Censors

I mentioned above that finding a censor sensitive and sharp enough to know precisely what to censor has been a historic challenge for Iranian governments. At certain junctures, a couple of university professors joined the group and lent a hand, but for half a century since the 1960s, the rapidly changing groups that have been charged with redacting books, movies and newspapers have either been illiterate or semi-literate. For example, the state ordered the censors to be watchful and prevent young people from coming into contact with the deadly scourge of communism. So the censors focused on preventing communist propaganda. But in the same period, some of the most important works of leftist literature were published in Iran. Savak constantly complained about the government’s censorship establishment and felt that it had no other choice but to interfere. A similar thing happened after the Islamic Revolution. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance hired numerous members of the paramilitary Basij organization to prevent the publication of deviant material, but in practice what they did is go around and arrest people.

The worst period in recent times was under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As it happens, the situation was better during his first term when Kayhan’s former deputy managing editor, Hossein Saffar Harandi, served as Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. In the second term, when Mohammad Hosseini replaced Harandi, the situation grew nearly as bad as it had been under Mostafa Mir-Salim, President Rafsanjani’s second-term minister of culture.


The Vicious Circle in Publishing

After the Islamic Revolution, the new rulers had their own problems with keeping the public ignorant. The experienced redactors and the censors of Pahlavi’s regime were no longer of any use. They had been trained to censor from a different perspective. It was necessary to quickly train and deploy new censors with a religious worldview. The Shah was primarily occupied with preventing the spread of communist ideology, as were his censors, although they were not terribly successful. But when the Islamic leadership gave the orders for a Cultural Revolution, it was like a directive telling the government that it was duty-bound to ensure that people would go to heaven. When the clergy and the preachers undertake this, their effort reflects long-standing cultural traditions and pressures. But it is different when a group of youngsters from religious associations invade newspapers, magazines and books with magnifiers and tweezers, ripping out whatever they think deviates from the path of the revolution. They made a list of forbidden names and words. “Kiss” and “love” and the like were the first to go, but then they continued to expand the list. Many of those who started with this kind of censorship later rose to become cabinet ministers and members of the parliament.

In recent years, censorship no longer relies on individuals, and you no longer find prominent names among the censors. They have delegated their job to computers, and it is the computers that find the forbidden words by scanning CDs sent by the printers so that the redactors can remove them. They pretend that by using computers they have modernized their work, but it is precisely like picking up a pair of scissors and cutting out a kiss or a woman from a painting. Imagine what they do to the works of classical Iranian poets such as Saadi and Hafez. As President Khatami’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani has said, with such an approach even the Koran must be censored. It suffices to have a look at the Story of Joseph.

The young people who have been hired by the ministry or dispatched by the mosques and the Basij organization to keep an eye on books and periodicals, and even those in the prosecutor’s office who cut newspapers as evidence, fall into two groups. The first group has no affinity for this line of work. They hope for another job but stay there for a while with the promise of “my dear, stay here for a few months until another vacancy comes along and we can send you somewhere else.” None of them genuinely wish to remain there and rise to the position of, for example, the director-general of censorship.

The second group have learned the nitty-gritty of their work because they have been there for a long time, something like six or seven years. By “work” I do not mean censorship, but how to maneuver around censorship and how the book, if published, would succeed in the market.

Currently more than half of Iranian publishers are ex-censors. They know people who are now the redactors, and they can have their books approved faster. They also know how the censors work. When a young writer goes to a publisher and tells him that he has written a novel, the first thing the publisher asks him is to summarize the story in 20 short sentences. When he hears the summary he tells the writer that, for example, “make the couple that you said were going to marry later brother and sister. And do these other things as well.” Why? Because he wants to go to his successor and tell him that they are both good Muslims, that he has his wits about him and has been proactive and then bargain with the censor to publish the novel. Such a publisher does not fall victim to censorship as others do, because besides these tricks he also knows the censors themselves. He knows, for example, he should give the books about psychology to a certain censor and another book to another. He knows which editor is more sensitive to certain things than others.

The result is a vicious circle. In the over a century that has passed since censorship emerged in Iran, this is the first time that this has happened. It became the dominant pattern, especially under President Ahmadinejad. The censors knew what books among those on their desks would be popular and sell well. They kept a list of those books. And now imagine how valuable such a list would be to middlemen who go around determining which book would make a bigger profit if it is printed.

Printing is no longer dangerous as it was in the old days, when you needed a print shop. You can print 400 copies at home in one night. Each copy would make a net profit of about $7, so in one night they can make around $2,800 using a printer at home.

As it was reported when Ahmadinejad was president, the scenario unfolds like this: A censor at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance informs the publisher that a certain book will not be granted a permit for publication, but he introduces the publisher to a middleman who buys the text for a certain amount and sells it at a profit to an underground publisher. So the original publisher gets some money, the censor at the ministry gets his cut and the real profit goes to the underground publisher who keeps no ledgers, pays no taxes and sells the book in front of the University of Tehran. It is the poor author who is left out in the cold, because copyright has no meaning in Iran.

This is one of the reasons why book sales fell during the presidency of Ahmadinejad. It was not that Iranians were reading fewer books. On the contrary, even though the Ministers of Culture and Islamic Guidance did their best to cloy the atmosphere, the market for books was a thriving free-for-all; many unimaginable books were published in Tehran, including Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which was previously imported from Afghanistan.

So while censorship was going strong underground publishing had a boom. These publishers were not reflected in the statistics so they moaned about falling numbers. One official even exclaimed that fewer books were published but somehow, more paper was consumed.



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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