Exiled Journalist Describes Iranian Self-Censorship As ‘Walking Blindly Through A Minefield’
Vahid Pourostad, a well-known Iranian journalist who before being forced to leave Iran about a year ago served on the editorial boards of a number of reformist newspapers.
One of Pourostad’s duties was to ensure that the content of the papers did not violate any of the “red lines” of the Iranian establishment. Reformist newspapers, he says, are forced to practice self-censorship in order to survive in the Islamic Republic, where in recent years scores of publications have been shut down.
Pourostad, who was arrested in Iran in the postelection crackdown and is now a broadcaster with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, talked about his work with Persian Letters.
Vahid Pourostad: In the Khatami era, I was a member of the editorial board of reformist newspapers, including “Nowrouz,” “Yas-e No,” “Eghbal,” “Etemad Melli,” and several other publications. One of my duties was to make the final control of the pages. My signature needed to be there for the managing editor to allow the paper to be published. It was necessary because of the repressive atmosphere and the pressure on the press.
One of the things that needed to be monitored was, for example, comments by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei — meaning that we would make sure to publish only direct quotes from him. Indirectly quoting his comments could get us into trouble. We also had to make sure that his picture or comments would not be published on the same page with others that could later be problematic. I was well aware of the sensitivities and had gathered experience and published many books on the legal aspects of issues dealing with the press, therefore I was in charge of the final monitoring.
Journalism in Iran is described as walking in a minefield without having the map of where the mines lie. You have to know how to walk between the mines without being blown up.
Persian Letters: You mentioned one of the so-called red lines, or mines, which has to do with Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei. You said his photo shouldn’t have been on the same page with photos of opponents or people who might have slightly different views from him. These red lines have been changing in the Islamic Republic. Can you give us more examples?
Pourostad: Yes, it really depends on different times. Today, for example, if you published Khamenei’s picture next to a picture of [former prime minister and opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi], your newspaper would be shut down in a minute. Anyway, nowadays according to rulings by the Supreme National Security Council, newspapers are banned from publishing pictures of even [reformist former President Mohammad Khatami]. There are many other issues and red lines — many are not defined — and you just need to know how to play the game.
Some time ago, it wasn’t possible to criticize Ahmadinejad the way we see it is happening now. So each era, each has its differences. Under Khatami, for example, newspapers could easily criticize him; but at the same time if we criticized a cleric close to Khamenei, we’d get into trouble.
Persian Letters: How did you view your job then? You were practicing a form of censorship that goes against the work of journalists, including yourself.
Pourostad: It’s true, it was self-censorship. The fact is that all reformist newspapers are engaged in self-censorship; self-censorship is part of the nature of reformist publications [in Iran]. We knew that each reformist newspaper that we’d launch would one day be shut down. We would do our best, however, not to give authorities any excuse. We’d make sure we weren’t breaking the laws or questioning very directly the issues that are sensitive for the establishment.
Let me give you another example. The managing editor of “Jamee” newspaper was put on trial over several caricatures — one of them was the angel of justice, and one of its eyes was covered and it was being treated by a doctor. The court had said that the caricature was an insult to the judiciary. I brought this example to show the depth of the tragedy and also to show how careful newspapers need to be. So yes, it was censorship; but we had to do it to extend the life of our publications. There were many things we couldn’t say and our readers would to a great extent understand.
Persian Letters: Did you ever made a mistake — meaning that you overlooked an article or any content that was due to be published which then led to the banning of any of the publications you worked for?
Pourostad: The closure of “Eghbal” newspaper, which happened in the 2005 presidential election, a newspaper which had endorsed reformist candidate Mostafa Moin, received an open letter from [unsuccessful presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi] to the supreme leader. Karrubi had accused Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, of [illegally intervening in the election]. We covered that letter. A few other members of the editorial board were against it, but I said, “It’s election time, when there is usually [more freedom],” and I said, “It’s a letter by Karrubi” — Karrubi was then considered an insider, he was part of the establishment; he wasn’t today’s Karrubi, who is an opposition figure. I didn’t think that publishing that letter could have led to the banning of the newspaper. It was published, the next day at 7:00 a.m. Judge Mortazavi [whom some Iranians have dubbed the "Butcher of the Press"] called me on my cellphone and told me, “Your newspaper has been banned.” He summoned me and the editor in chief. [The closure of the publication] was a clear mistake on my part.
This article was originally published on Persian Letters and was republished on Sampsonia Way with permission of the author.