Censorship: You don’t deserve to be published!

Coming from a nation which is proud to have produced one of the most ancient books in history (Avesta by the Persian prophet Zarathustra), and coming from a religious background where god swears By the pen and whatever they record[1], it is naturally hard to believe that our government is one of the few States left in the modern world and digital age, that officially censors books. While international publishers hurry from an appointment to another to raise the profits, we shiver when deciding to publish a book: “Will they let us publish this at all?”

Our constitution doesn’t clearly recognize the freedom of expression: ‘the press is free to express their opinion, unless it is against the foundation of Islam or rights of the people, and the law will explain the details”. (clause 24, The Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran).

And the details have never been explained, except in an act issued by the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution (which is not a law, as it is not legislated by the Parliament), which states the subjects that “do not deserve to be published”, for example: Renouncing the fundamentals of religion; promoting moral corruption; inviting the society to riot against the State of Islamic Republic of Iran; promoting the ideas of terrorist and illegal groups and corrupted sects and defending monarchy; stimulating conflicts between the various ethnic or religious groups or creating problems in the unity of the society and the country; mocking and weakening the national proud and nationalistic spirit, and creating an atmosphere of loosing national values to the culture and civilization of western or eastern colonizing systems.[2]

Well, these are the guidelines that the “Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance” has been following in issuing permissions to publish books in the past 20 years. Unfortunately almost anything can be interpreted to be violating one of these red lines, especially when it comes to “moral corruption” and “loosing values”, for which no one can give a concrete definition.

Publishers have to submit their books to the ministry before they publish it, so there is no juridical way for objection to the decision of a censor, or let the common sense judge the health of the book published. There is a gigantic bureaucratic system – by the expense of Iranian national treasury — of prior restraint installed based on the act above: Publishers have to get the books translated, typeset, edited, laid out, even proofread, before they can submit the books to the ministry. Then the censors read the books. If they find no problems, they issue a permission to publish, if they find some problems, they write the problems to be cut out – on a piece of paper with neither a letterhead nor a signature – and the publisher has to make the changes and resubmit the book. If they decide that the book does not “deserve to be published” at all, they declare their decision to the publisher orally, no written document. And the worst problem is, it all depends on the taste and individual interpretation of the persons who read the copy in the ministry of culture, whose names no one knows.

With the official permission, the publisher can proceed producing the book. But after binding, the book must be submitted again to the ministry, so that they can check whether all the changes and omissions have been actually applied and only then, a Permission to Distribute – officially named Declaration of Receiving the Book – will be granted. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the book can be reprinted. When the government of President Khatami finished its term and President Ahmadinezhad took office, they declared that thousands of corrupted books had been authorized by Khatami’s Minister of Culture, and so they cancelled the permissions to publish for hundreds of titles in only one year, which pushed many publishers to the verge of bankruptcy.