In this series on self-censorship, we asked writers, artists, journalists and human rights activists to define self-censorship. Where possible, they are invited to give examples of their experiences, and to describe what they have witnessed.
We presented each interviewee with the same set of questions, adapting them or asking further questions where relevant.
Our intention was not to challenge the interviewees. We wanted them to express their own perspective of self-censorship.
Shirin Ebadi is a lawyer and human rights activist. Prior to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, she served as a judge in Iran. She was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 2003 for her significant contribution to promoting democracy and defending the rights of women, children and refugees. Following Iranian authorities’ crackdown on dissidents and regime critics in 2009, Ebadi was forced to leave Iran. She now lives in the UK.
How do you define self-censorship?
A simple definition of censorship is that they cover your mouth so you won’t utter an unpleasant word. Throughout my life I have tried to avoid self-censorship, but when I lived in Iran and wanted to publish a book or an article I tried to write in a way that would escape the censor’s scissors. In fact, I did not self-censor but practiced writing in a way that the reader would understand, but not the censor.
Isn’t that the same as self-censorship?
No, it means to find a different language to express what you want to say. Let me give you a simple example. There’s a story that somebody asked a priest if he could smoke while praying. “No, this would be very disrespectful towards God,” answered the priest. “Can I pray when I am smoking?” somebody else asked the same priest. “Yes, my son,” said the priest.
They are both the same question but put differently. My expertise — i.e., law and struggling with censorship for years — taught me how to speak to escape censorship. And of course I have not always been successful, and just my name has created problems. For example, all copies of a book were destroyed because my name was on the cover.
Under the government of President Rouhani, censorship has remained as strong as it was under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it is a different kind. We have witnessed less traditional censorship, so it’s as if censorship has been modernized. For different reasons, including a relative satisfaction with Rouhani’s presidency, some authors and civil and political activists have toed the red lines set out by Iran’s leaders to a greater extent. So while we have seen an increase in the publication of real uncensored news and information, the popularity of social networks has created many problems and new challenges. People have access to so many voices and points of view that it is sometimes difficult to get an accurate picture of events. There has also been an increase in fake news. Given that Iranians are using social networks more and more, do you think the Iranian government can continue enforcing censorship the way it has done in the past?
I agree with you. Everything has advanced — and so have the censors and the censorship. In the past, censorship was explicit. They told you: cross this out and don’t write that. But with the advance of technology, this does not work. Now there is another method for censorship. A subject is censored, and suddenly the media are drawn to that subject.
A clear example is what happened after the mass arrests of 2009. Many political prisoners — many of whom were well-known people in the government — decided to go on hunger strike and swore together to continue the hunger strike until death. After a couple of days the media learned about it. Of course the domestic media could not say anything, but the foreign media started to cover it, reporting that the detainees were on hunger strike and the situation was critical.
Right then a woman who was accused of conspiracy in her husband’s murder was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. All the media turned their attention to the verdict to stone Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani to death, and the political prisoners’ hunger strike was completely forgotten. As a result, their hunger strike failed and other hunger strikes after that failed as well.
I wrote a letter at the time saying that I was against the stoning. But we must take note that it was the Ministry of Information that informed the media about the stoning verdict. I wrote that we must be against any kind of execution and especially the stoning of Sakineh, but at the time 13 other women had been sentenced to stoning as well. But they publicized the only case that could morally bother the conscience of some people.
Nobody was at fault and I am not accusing anybody of following the Intelligence Ministry’s orders. The ministry publicized the news and others reported the news. In fact, they were tricked, and the result was that the hunger strike by political prisoners was forgotten. This is a form of censorship. That is why I think the media supporting human rights must learn how to identify priorities.
A little later there was news about death sentences against a few political prisoners. It was reported that a blogger named Hossein Derakhshan was going to be executed. Fortunately this time the media were not deceived. They noticed that the rumor was meant to distract them from covering the situation of political prisoners and they did not take the bait. Traditional censorship might not work today — and the censors know it.
We also must inform the media about the methods employed by the Intelligence Ministry and must not be distracted by fake news, or even real news meant to distract us.
Can you give us an example of when you’ve practiced self-censorship?
When Mr. Khatami was president, I was the president of the Society for Protecting the Rights of the Child, which a few friends and I had founded. People from the Ministry of Education came to me and said: “You always say that teaching about law must start at middle and high school. The Education Council has decided to do it. You write the book.”
I accepted and wrote a textbook in simple language to teach at the high school level. But then they told me, “If we print your name as the author then it might become problematic. So we will not name the author and just put ‘The Education Council.’” I agreed because what was important for me was the idea, not my name.
The textbook was printed and I got my author’s fee from the Education Ministry. More than 100,000 copies were printed and distributed.
But somehow they found out that I was the author, and the government papers, including Kayhan, opposed the book being used for teaching. It ended up with the destruction of all copies.
Also in the series: