Living with State Censorship!

Living with State Censorship! - Media

Many years ago, prominent Iranian journalist Mahmoud Shamsolvaezin, who has been practically banned from working for years, used to ask the Iranian regime, whenever possible to  “Please give us the map of the landmine field, so that we can act accordingly,” comparing journalism in Iran to walking in a field full of landmines. Dangerous topics in Iran were not only based on personal whims, but constantly changing. A topic could be addressed by journalists in any possible way one day, but a few days later, the same topic could be considered as a “red line” that couldn’t be crossed.

I remember that one day journalists could produce several reports, interviews and articles about the topic of “negotiations with the US”, but the day after, it turned into a red line, because of the Islamic Republic leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s disagreement with it. And the judiciary of Tehran (headed by Abbasali Alizadeh at the time) announced in a circular that any kind of addressing of the topic of “negotiations with the US” was a “crime”, thus banning the media from dealing with it. Or, to give another example, ten years ago, criticizing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was once considered as a “criminal” act, and some were jailed for it. But six years later, any kind of criticism, denial and condemnation of Ahmadinejad became absolutely free in the Islamic Republic’s media.

I have been working as a journalist for more than 15 years, and all my journalistic experience in Iran was accompanied with “censorship” and “limitations” based on the personal tastes of various security and judiciary organizations. There are numerous stories registered in my mind about censored topics, or the moments or methods of imposing censorship. One of the most significant events of my professional life is directly related to this issue; namely, how the report prepared by the Article 90 Commission of the 6th Iranian Parliament regarding Zahra Kazemi’s death was removed from Iranian newspapers at the time.

In 2003, I was the political editor of Etemaad daily. We had gone through a “hot” summer. At the beginning of the summer, Zahra Kazemi, Iranian-Canadian photographer/journalist – who had gone to the area in front of Evin Prison to cover the sit-in of some political prisoners’ families – was arrested by the security forces. After more than two weeks of being held, Zahra Kazemi was killed in the prison in a suspicious manner.

The then Prosecutor of Tehran, Saeed Mortazavi, tried to show that this journalist’s death was natural, using various methods such as threatening the then Deputy of Foreign Press in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Thus doing, he and those under his charge could evade the responsibility for her death.

Iranian reformist President Seyed Mohammad Khatemi was in power then, and the reformists held the majority in the Islamic Republic Parliament. After President Khatemi himself dealt with the case, it became clear that Zahra Kazemi had been killed in the prison. The Islamic Parliament formed a special committee to investigate the issue, and hand those responsible for this tragedy over to the justice system.

The press also did their best to deal with the issue. But Saeed Mortazavi was the Tehran Prosecutor, and had a long list of quasi-legal and illegal actions against press and journalists on his record. Moreover, he was also supported by high ranking, authoritarian officials in the Islamic Republic. Mortazavi had a direct role in implementing censorship of the press in Iran. By gathering different kinds of related and unrelated cases, he brought the managers of the press under control, hence advancing his own agendas as well as those of his superiors.

The conflict between the government and the parliament with the Tehran Prosecutor and judiciary system over Zahra Kazemi’s case lasted for months, until eventually in the fall of 2003, reformist members of the parliament decided to read the outcomes of the investigations carried out by the parliament’s special committee in parliament. This routine, according to law, was one of the legal rights of members of parliament.

According to Article 9 of the Islamic Republic Constitution, “no authorities, in the name of preserving independence and territorial integrity of the country, have the right to deprive people of their legitimate freedoms even by passing laws and regulations.” But many of the Islamic Republic’s authorities, based on their own personal tastes or interests, would violate or restrict various freedoms, including the freedom of press and media to disseminate the news.

Saeed Mortazavi, had a significant role in this arena. He was able to publish or eliminate a story with just one phone call to the newspaper’s chief editor or managing editor. Repeatedly, I saw with my own eyes that he went so far as to determine the newspaper’s headline. In that crucial fall (2003), the same thing happened again.

The parliament included the reading of the investigation report in its daily agenda. At the appointed time, the report was read from the parliament tribune. According to the Constitution, the parliament’s talks are aired live from one of the radio channels. This was done on that day as well. The special committee report, in which the Tehran Prosecutor (Saeed Mortazavi) was mentioned as one of the suspects in the death of Zahra Kazemi, was aired on the radio. This immediately became the most important story in Iran. According to daily routine, we too had to cover the most important stories of the day. The story of the reading of the report in parliament was one of our main headlines.

From the morning, when the report was read in the parliament, to evening, when we had to prepare the pages one by one to be sent to the printing house, I was involved in preparing the report for this event. The newspaper’s parliament reporter was informing me of the events minute by minute, and was sending the reports to the newspaper. In the editorial board meeting, covering this story was also approved by the members of the board.

I was thinking that as this report had been aired live on the radio, we would be able to publish many parts of it in the newspaper. It was about 9 pm, and I was in the newspaper’s layout department, managing the design of the first and the second pages of the newspaper, when the office phone rang, and the person in charge of technical issues gave me the phone. The chief editor summoned me to his office. When I opened the door of his room, he said: “Mortazavi has called me!” I got the message. I asked: “Well, what shall we do at this time of the night? We don’t have enough substitute materials for two pages.” And I went on: “But this report and story is no longer confidential. It was aired on the radio this morning.” But it was useless. I had to remove all the materials related to this story from the pages of the newspaper. It was a bitter night. I was so enraged by the situation in which I was trapped that I didn’t know how much longer I could take it.

The next morning, there was no sign of the most important story of the day before, not in our newspaper, nor in any other publications on all newsstands in Iran. This was one of the most bitter moments in my career.

I was contacted by some radio stations outside of Iran, including Radio Farda. They asked me: “What has happened that there is no sign of the most important news of the day before in any newspapers?” And I replied: “It is the same story of censorship by the Tehran prosecutor.” They asked me if I was willing to do an interview about the issue. Doing an interview with foreign media, especially the Farsi ones, was considered by some judiciary and security forces as breaking the laws. But I thought what had happened was against the Constitution, so I allowed them to record and broadcast my words. In my interview with Radio Farda, I explained what had happened the night before, emphasizing that the Tehran Prosecutor’s action was against the Constitution, as the legitimate parliament in the country had determined that this report could be made public.

My interview had a huge impact. I was the only journalist who had agreed to openly talk and testify about how the Tehran prosecutor implemented censorship and threatened our newspaper in order to stop publication of a story. A few days later, I was summoned by the security officials for the same interview, and this led to my arrest a year later.

Roozbeh Mirebrahimi

Roozbeh Mirebrahimi is Executive Director of Non-Stop Media, Inc. He is a journalist who has served as a reporter, analyst, political editor, social editor, editor-in-chief and writer for multiple print and online publications in Iran and the United States. As an analyst and Iranian expert, he has often been quoted or featured by New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Voice of America and other media sources.

Mr. Mirebrahimi’s journalistic and human rights efforts have led to prizes and fellowships including the Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett International Prize (2006), the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s first International Journalist in Residence (2007-2008), the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University’s Visiting Scholar (2010-2011). He has also lectured or participated in panel discussions about media and human rights issues in Iran at such universities as Princeton, George Washington and Columbia. Mr. Mirebrahimi is in his 8th year as editor-in-chief of Iran dar Jahan, an online publication translating uncensored international news sources to Farsi. He has also written several books about Iran and his experiences as a censored, imprisoned and exiled journalist.

In June 2014, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights opened in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Mirebrahimi is featured in the exhibition named “Who Is Like Me”: The Human Rights Movement. He delivers a video statement on his experience as an Iranian blogger

Image source: