Article 19 of the UDHR stipulates a most fundamental right of human beings: the right of free expression: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
This right is essential in many human activities in a social environment, from communication to exchange of ideas, from education to research, and from political discourse to literary and artistic activities. The fact that we live in what is termed as the “age of communication” makes this right a most fundamental one.
Tonight we are hearing some voices from Iran, but in Iran itself similar voices are routinely silenced. The Islamic Republic allows only a selective range of voices to be heard and makes sure that all forms of public expressions are under control. Not only public meetings like the one we have here tonight need official permission, but all mediums of expression from books and newspapers to films and plays and music and arts exhibitions require prior approval by the authorities. The broadcast media, radio and TV, is a state monopoly, and the use of satellite receivers is legally banned.
The suppression of freedom of expression is institutionalised in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The constitution restricts freedom of expression to what it terms “not disturbing the bases of Islam”. The interpretation of this has been left to the ruling clergy who dominate the power structure and who have the last word in all legislations. This has meant draconian laws restricting all forms of expression that do not conform to the narrow official interpretation of Islam or the values associated with it, with severe punishments ranging from fines and long term imprisonment to lashings and even execution.
But the policy of denials of the right of free expression is not limited to what the law stipulates. Dissidents, intellectuals, writers, political activists, women, trade union and ethnic rights campaigners, human rights defenders, and followers of some religious minorities and non-official versions of Islam are routinely harassed. Arbitrary banning of newspapers and confiscation of books and music CDs already authorised is very common.
Over the last few years, dozens of newspapers and periodicals have been banned, the last few happening just a few weeks ago. The situation has gone from bad to worse since last year under the administration of the new president, and many books that have previously been sanctioned for publication are now banned again. Indeed, the justification for the recent banning of the monthly Nameh was that it published a poem by the famous Iranian poet Simin Behbehani taken from a collection of her poems that had already been published twice with official approval.
I referred earlier to how the constitutional proviso of restricting free expression to its conformity with Islamic principles is being applied by the government. A case that I was personally involved with, vividly illustrates this. In 1999, I published a short article in the national daily Neshat in which I argued against the death penalty. There was no reference to Islam or any other religion or the Islamic shariah law or current legislations for that matter.
However, the authorities deemed the article to be ant-Islamic – on the grounds that by opposing the death penalty, it has implicitly opposed the retribution law (an eye for an eye and a life for a life). Moreover, they regarded the retribution law as so fundamental in Islam that opposing it would amount to apostasy or negation of Islam– a crime punishable by death. As a result, there were calls for my execution with a bounty put on my head, the paper was shut down, and its publisher, its chief editor and a senior columnist were jailed for several years.
This incident shows how restrictive the law in Iran is regarding free expression and how arbitrary the authorities interpret the law in order to clamp down on any discourse and to muzzle free speech. The result is two-fold. The government tries to restrict the right of free speech by legal and extra-legal means, and the public is conscious of the limitations imposed by the government, and tries to abide by them using self-censorship. As a result, many publishers are extra cautious in their approach and what they are prepared to publish. They have to observe the slippery red line drawn by the authorities, and more often than not they may find themselves on the wrong side of the line
The recent ban on the reformist national daily Sharq is a prime example of this. It started publication soon after a nationwide clamp down on reformist papers in Iran in recent years, by declaring that “we are here to stay”. The publishers explained that survival was the key to their editorial policy, and so they tried to follow every written and unwritten code of practice that the officials were to impose. However, early this month the paper was shut down. The grounds for the ban were, among other things, publishing a “positive” picture of a foreign ambassador, interviewing a BBC journalist, and referring to BBC as a reliable source! Some of us may find the latter assertion questionable (!) but surely it is not a banning offence – except of course in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Of course, the communication revolution and advance of the internet and satellite broadcasting has made the policy of suppression of free speech much more difficult to implement. A vast number of people being denied access to free information and free expression through the conventional media are using the electronic means of communication. While only 1 in 60 people in the world speak Persian, the language is reported to be the fourth used in weblogs in the internet. The army of young educated Iranians frustrated by the official media and the severe censorship applied to all sorts of communications have taken to the cyberspace in the exercise of their right to free speech.
But here too, the authorities are using all the tools in their disposal to clamp down on the use of the internet. Scores of webloggers have been arrested and persecuted for what they have written in their blogs. And the government uses sophisticated tools to filter websites and block a vast range of sites from being accessed by users in Iran.
Only a couple of weeks ago an official of the grandly titled “Directorate of Management and Support of the Information Technology Network” announced that 10 millions of internet sites have been blocked by various government agencies using the filtering techniques. Moreover, he added that more than 90% of the blocked sites have had “immoral” contents. This leaves about 1 million sites that have been blocked for other reasons. In other words, the government admits that it is denying its people access to about one million internet sites for which it cannot claim any ethical or moral justifications.
But even the government’s criteria used for the other 9 million blocked sites should not be taken on its face value. It’s vocabulary of “immoral” sites do not refer only to sexual or porn sites, but cover a vast range of services and information available on the net that otherwise are regarded as harmless or even useful and necessary.
For instance, chat rooms, dating sites and virtual internet communities are all regarded as immoral. And how do they filter these millions of websites? By using keywords. One may think of many keywords that can be applied for filtering of “immoral” sites, but in the list that the Iranian government uses for this purpose one word stands out: women! That’s true – in the vocabulary of the officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran, “women” is a dirty word, and all internet sites dealing with women’s issues have been deemed to be immoral, and banned.
While this attitude towards women is part of the overall gender apartheid policy of the government, which has meant a string of specific discriminatory laws and regulations against women, it also shows that even when issues like freedom of speech is concerned they suffer the most. Indeed, in matters of artistic expression, women in Iran have been particularly hard hit. One area that this is very evident is in the music and singing professions.
Since the advent of the Islamic Republic, women have been barred from singing in public or to male audiences. They even could not publish their music for general release, though there have been some limited relaxations recently in this regard. As a result, not only thousands of talented women have been denied their right of free expression through their music, but also an entire generation has been deprived of the female voice in the nation’s music, while the music in general has been severely restricted to certain genres.
Restriction on the freedom of expression in art and literature of course goes far beyond music. The film and performance arts are subjected to severe restrictions, not only in their contents but in forms too. Dance has been virtually banned, especially for women. And in films, the official ban on female form, and physical contacts between actors of opposite sex, has created some of the bizarre and at some points hilarious scenes in the Iranian movies. Mothers could not hug the long lost sons coming home, men could not rescue their female relatives in case of fire or accidents, and women always appearing in their compulsory hejabs even in the privacy of their bedrooms.
In addition to women, other sections of the society who are subjected to discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity or belief too, suffer more from restrictions on freedom of expression. Religious minorities suffer various restrictions, and some like the Bahais are denied any freedom to express themselves at all. And while ethnic groups can speak and publish in their own language, they are restricted in expressing their identity through arts, dance and music.
All in all, restriction on the freedom of expression is widespread in the Islamic Republic of Iran and covers all forms of communication. Its effects on political discourse and on literature, art and music are more prevalent. Also, it affects women, religious minorities and ethnic groups more. The government not only controls all forms of conventional media but is also trying to reign in on the electronic means of communication. Access to the internet from inside Iran is very much restricted. And any breach of the restrictions put on the freedom of expression may be punished severely by imprisonment, lashing or even execution. No wonder that very seldom the outside world hears voices from inside Iran.
* This is the text of the keynote speech delivered at the Voices from Iran event organised by the international human rights group Article 19 in London on 27th September 2006.
Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a human rights activist and commentator on Iranian political and human rights issues. He is a spokesperson for Manshoor 81 (Charter 2003). His weekly column on Iranian affairs (in Persian) appears in Iran Emrooz and Iranian publications. He lives in England.