Iranian Press and Censorship: 1953-1998

In a century and a half of its existence, the Iranian print media--including newspapers and a variety of periodical publications--have experienced several periods of expansion and contraction. Thus, from 1906 to 1925 it gradually opened up sufficiently to influence the course of events in the country. By contrast, the sixteen years of Reza Shah's rule marked a period when the press was virtually reduced to an instrument in the hands of a strong authoritarian state. The period 1941-53 marked the country's return to an expansive press, culminating in the years of Mohammad Mosaddeq's government. This article compares and contrasts the basic premises and operating procedures of press censorship in Iran in two distinct periods separated by the Iranian revolution of two decades ago, one from 1953 to 1977, the other from 1981 to 1997.

During the first period, which lasted for 24 years, the Iranian state exercised primarily restrictive censorship. In the first few years after the fall of Mosaddeq's government press restrictions were mainly imposed through the application of martial law. Later on, the responsibility for enforcing censorship was divided between the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Culture, with the newly founded security agency, SAVAK, as a shadow organization principally engaged in extralegal activities such as harassing outspoken dissident writers. Naturally, each system of censorship had its own structure and function, and gave rise to specific consequences. Much of the article is given over to the discussion of these features and the consequences arising from them.

With the advent of the revolution, the Iranian press once again experienced a brief period of relaxation of censorship lasting a little over four years. From the beginning, however, the will to Islamicize the revolution manifested itself in the form of an aggressive system of censorship, unique in Iran's modern experience. Indeed, this system of censorship has proved far more efficient--and far more damaging--than previous systems both in stifling oppositional discourse and in propagating the ideological message of the ruling clerical elite, one largely alien to Iran's secular intellectual community. In comparing and contrasting these two systems of censorship, the article brings to the fore many forces that are only partly visible so far, or are hidden within deep layers of Iranian culture. It is these forces, the essay argues, that mitigate against greater strides toward achieving freedom of expression-in the Western sense--in Iran.

* Abstract prepared by the author

Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak
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