Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Iranian Press and Censorship

Thirty years ago, when Iran's last Shah hosted the-then British Prime Minister Callahan at the ‎Sadabad Palace, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's current president, was fifteen- or sixteen-years-‎old.

Today, the world recognizes Ahmadinejad better than the former Shah and newspaper write ‎about him more; his picture is in more places than the Shah's, and he has been to the United ‎Nations and spoken there more times than the Shah. The Shah, however, was worried about ‎Ahmadinejad, because at his meeting with Callahan he said, "My thoughts point to thirty years ‎from now." ‎

At that time, neither the Shah nor anyone else could imagine that in thirty years Iran would be ‎consumed in an election that would send Ahmadinejad to the Sadabad Palace as President. ‎Thirty years ago, the Iranian people, a majority of their thirty-and some odd million people, ‎carried out a revolution that was predicted nowhere in the world and not preceded by any sign or ‎alarm.‎

When the revolution took place, a while had passed since anyone was looking for an important ‎headline in newspapers. Newspaper pages were similar and those days' colorful magazines ‎summarized society's worries, be they traffic in Tehran, difficulty of obtaining a construction ‎permit or lost cows on provincial highways, and so on. The country's mighty censorship ‎apparatus had not been able to find much to censor for some time. ‎

In the second half of the seventies, the Shah and his government insisted that the youth become ‎more politicized, but they weren't interested. The regime was worried that the indifference of the ‎youth was harmful for national security, but at the same time the Savak [Shah's infamous ‎intelligence organization] would throw young people in jail for possessing a banned book. Still, ‎the Shah, his ministers and general still complained that the youth cared too much about jeans ‎and looking like Elvis Presley and Allen Delon. They asked, why isn't there any activism? Why ‎doesn't anyone care about issues? Why is the city dead? They worried so much that they finally ‎decided to establish a full political party for the youth to channel their political activism- though ‎to no avail. ‎

Then news came that students were preparing themselves in dormitories for armed struggle ‎against the regime. Suddenly it was revealed that several youngsters had gone to Iran's northern ‎mountains to emulate Fidel Castro's armed resistance. The royal army mobilized its tanks and ‎helicopters to suppress the uprising. ‎

For the regime, even the handful of youngsters was surprising. The guerillas were killed. The ‎Savak was happy and proud, but in March 1975 the Shah confided in his chief of staff, Asadollah ‎Alam, "It is surprising that out of one thousand students at the Tehran University yesterday, six ‎hundred paid homage to the killed guerillas." Acknowledging the Shah's concern, Alam ‎responded, "This is the result of controlling thoughts." Alam adds in his memoir, "He [the Shah] ‎asked why can't we do that ourselves [police thoughts]?"‎

Neither could journalists control thoughts for the regime, nor could writers paid by the palace or ‎other institutions. And so, the revolution began. ‎

When the revolution heated up, no one worried about people's indifference anymore. Suddenly ‎everyone was politicized. The newspapers were politicized. When the government wanted to ‎pressure them, they staged a powerful strike that ended only with the full lifting of censorship. ‎And when they ended their strike, they all published on their first page the image of their ‎country's next leader, whose image no one had seen in newspapers for a quarter of a century. ‎From then on, all newspapers began criticizing the regime. ‎

The situation continued until the revolution's victory. Immediately afterward the American ‎embassy was invaded. Before long, war arrived too and Saddam's missiles began an ominous ‎dance in city skies. ‎

Everyone had forgotten that six years before, in the very same Iran, the Shah was worried about ‎thirty years after. People were consumed in the struggle to prepare essential goods in wartime ‎and talked politics while waiting in line to purchase them. ‎

Gradually, officials entertained the thought of preventing society's further politicization. ‎Women's magazines, cooking and sewing journals flourished. Though wartime and post-war ‎reflections politicized journalists and newspapers, it didn't liberate them. Censorship grew, and ‎so journalists were left in the same predicament they were in before the revolution, and to change ‎which they had revolted. The situation continued until the 1997 presidential election and the ‎coming to power of Khatami, which ushered an era of unprecedented journalistic freedom.‎

The conservatives renewed their war on the media. More than one hundred newspapers were ‎shut down and two hundred journalists were sent to prison. Silencing the media, however, is not ‎possible after a revolution whose main goal was liberty.‎

There was a time when the government could control the media as it wished, but that time has ‎passed. It may be possible to control journalists for a short time, but to silence them forever- that ‎is an impossible wish.‎