I worked as a cartoonist for the Iranian media from 1989 to 2006, the year I left Iran, and throughout that time censorship was as ordinary and routine as breathing. Even for cartoons.

If I wanted to think of and recount one experience and tell you about it, it would be like trying to recall the deepest breath I took in those years. I’m sure that like me, every Iranian cartoonist has a collection of unpublished works that were rejected by various editors-in-chief, out of fear they would lead to headaches.

I remember once, while I was working for the newspaper Zan (Woman), the atmosphere had become so difficult and timid that I drew a strip of a cartoonist drawing blank frames. It was so that no individual or authority would be offended, but in the end, an invisible man steps in and tells the cartoonist, “You must have been referring to me.” Even that, the editor-in-chief rejected. Why? Because he was afraid the judiciary would interpret it as a reference to the supreme leader and the paper would be endangered.

 

Spears as People

In 1994, when I was working for Jahan-e Ketab (The World of Books), I drew a cover for the magazine that I liked very much. The ground was studded with spears and books were raining down from the sky. The moment that the books hit the ground they were torn apart. The cover of course was about censorship of books. The editor-in-chief said it was a great idea, that it would work in principle, but that it could not be published at the time. “At the time” meant that the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance happened to be Mostafa Mir-Salim, during the second presidential term of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. I will never forget the editor-in-chief saying that “We can’t do it now, but Mir-Salim is not going to be the Guidance Minister forever.” But yes, Mir-Salim did remain the Guidance Minister forever, and that illustration was never published.

Naturally all of your cartoons in that period were infused with both hope and fear. You resorted to metaphors to get your message across, through that tiny hole in the wall of censorship and redactions. You never portrayed a person as the censor or a government agent, so that authorities could not connect it to a specific individual. That’s why I drew a plain of spears. You could not tell whether the spears had grown out of the ground or if somebody had planted them. The space is abstract. The abstraction gives the drawing an artistic sense, but it was also meant to evade censorship. The atmosphere was such that you always wondered if you had gone too far, perhaps the meaning was too obvious and the work would be rejected. This fear was ever present.

This acrobatics, this fear, was a strange and constant pain. You were suspended between the fear of saying nothing and the fear of saying too much. When my work was rejected, I was eventually no longer shocked, because somewhere in my mind I had accepted the possibility. But the truth is that no matter how well prepared you are, it is never a pleasant experience to be told, “No, it can’t run.” There was not much more to discuss after that “No.” You know the atmosphere and understand the editor-in-chief’s concerns. You understand that he has his own worries and does not want his publication to be shut down or banned for printing one cartoon or one story that went too far.

That cartoon was never published anywhere. These days you can at least post rejected works on social media, but this story goes back to pre-internet times, when the work had to be buried in the cartoonist’s archive and at best only friends and relatives could see it.

 

When People Become the Oppressors

I think everybody agrees that censorship is meant to stifle or limit freedom of expression and to prevent the free flow of information. But beyond this, everybody qualifies it subjectively, and differences of opinion emerge.

I am not talking about dictatorships, totalitarian governments or theocratic dictatorships, which by nature do not believe in freedom of expression, no matter what they call it and what excuses they proffer – protecting public interest, preventing public confusion, defending values and the sacred and so on.

But it is not always governments that censor, and it is not only dictators who stifle freedom of expression and thought. The culture and traditions of society can be as guilty. In many instances it is the people themselves who assume the duty of suppressing and silencing each other. In such an atmosphere individuals eventually resort to self-censorship to protect themselves from the reproach of the community or the authorities. Governments can create an environment in which the individual can gradually feel safer in the face of cultural and social pressures and find the courage to express his opinions. Or a government can encourage and support the repressive culture and customs.

These problems are not limited by a country’s geographic boundaries. Since I’ve been active in the media outside Iran for some years, I have become aware that censorship can take a slightly different form. I am now no longer confronted with the official power of the Iranian government. I am an exile, an immigrant or, as they call it, an “escapee” cartoonist who works outside Iran. The pressures that I feel nowadays come from groups and people online who might not like the idea behind a work for a thousand and one reasons. They may feel insulted and humiliated because they have interpreted the work in a certain way. Or they may feel that the work is imprudent because of the political situation in Iran or because they fear war and chaos, and believe that portraying a negative image of the country enables such scary outcomes.

They do not send you to prison or harm you physically, but you are under constant psychological pressure. Under such conditions you might prefer to avoid certain subjects for your own peace of mind or to avoid being labeled. I believe that the Iranian government has done a masterful job in creating this situation. It has outsourced an important tool of suppression to Iranians themselves. The regime has kept the fear of war and chaos alive, and as a result, any kind of criticism or protest against the country’s politics or human rights situation is interpreted by parts of the public as conforming to Western views and providing a pretext for those who want war.

At least during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the critics agreed on the need to criticize the government. But since President Hassan Rouhani’s election, some government critics have turned into government supporters and view any protest or criticism as aiming to weaken the political position of the elected government. They now believe that supporting their beloved Rouhani government involves suppressing and blaming the Iranian opposition.

Ever since President Rouhani took office, I have been harshly condemned every time I’ve done a cartoon of him or Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Even protesting against their lies is considered as weakening the government. A while ago, I had a long chat with a friend who lives in the United States. He was cross with me for not drawing an emotional cartoon about the 175 divers who disappeared during the Iran-Iraq War, whose bodies were recently discovered and given a state funeral. I had drawn a cartoon about how the Revolutionary Guards was exploiting the dead divers, their remains, and their legacy. My friend felt that this was criticism simply for the sake of criticism, and it did not raise the hope that people’s lot would improve. He believed that I was presenting the government as incapable of reform and compromise, and consequently preparing the atmosphere for war.

But the worst reactions come from quarters who do espouse modern and liberal views, but they have turned their liberalness into a kind of religion. If they feel you are joking about their views or challenging some of their extreme attitudes, they try to silence you as well. For example, I drew a work about how the “sexist” label is used to crush people in arguments and many viewed it as an insult to the sacred realm of feminism. The problem with this knee-jerk attitude is that that they do not critique your views or ideas, but issue a guilty verdict based on their own interpretations and then expect you to apologize and repent.

Of course the media outside Iran has also taken issue with some of my work, under pretexts that did not seem especially relevant. I have been told that a certain cartoon might be interpreted as homophobic or lead to misunderstanding. Often I have not agreed with the feedback I have received from editors outside Iran. Publishing work that critiqued Israel, for example, while it was attacking Gaza, was not easy, though I eventually found a place willing to run it. Those who turned it down never told me directly why. Their excuse was that according to their mandate, they had to focus on Iranian affairs, even though for Iran, Israel is squarely part of the story.

 

The Creativity Question

Censorship never has lasting positive effects on creativity. Some people are under the illusion that censorship makes the artist more creative. In the short term, it is possible to mistake the artist’s ingenuity in bypassing restrictions with creativity. But censorship in Iran is forward-moving and knows no boundaries. The result, after a while, is complete suffocation. It is better not to defend or to justify censorship because of temporal or modest achievements. Perhaps after I left Iran I might have exaggerated because I was overjoyed to be in a more open atmosphere, but this is both natural and transitory.

On the whole freedom has helped my peace of mind and my imagination, or at least I hope it has. After a while censorship imposes itself as the subject of every carton, every piece of work. The struggle to bypass the censor in creating an illustration means that the work ceases to be entirely about itself, but partly about the force that seeks to obstruct it. This is the ultimate influence that bypassing censorship has on ideas themselves. Part of the mental space of the work becomes unconsciously occupied by restrictions. Eventually, it feels as though there is nothing left for the artist to say, except to moan about censorship. An open cultural and artistic environment benefits both the artist and the artist’s audience.

***

Journalism is a hazardous profession in Iran, and it can be even more dangerous when trying to report the truth about the government and Iran’s establishment figures. Censorship, Iranian Style is a collection of stories by 18 Iranian journalists, writers and cartoonists who have experienced censorship — under the Islamic government, as well as under the Shah’s regime prior to the 1979 Revolution. Their tales of being silenced, harassed and imprisoned provide a solid understanding of the everyday bravery and courage of Iranian journalists, and give a new perspective on the menacing and warped mentality of Iranian censor officials. 

 

Also in this series: 

"I could not document history"

When Stories Kill

The Seven Obstacles to Publishing Books in Iran

The Working Journalist in an Atmosphere of Terror

The Midnight Watch

 

 

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