This was not peculiar to this year’s event, but is in keeping with the culture of censorship that dominates the Islamic Republic of Iran. The International Campaign points out that such restrictions are so familiar now that some experienced publishers, including Shahla Lahiji, have taken to boycotting the book fair altogether.
Lahiji has suggested 55 books for publication since 2014, but all of them have been rejected by censorship authorities, leading Lahiji to conclude that contrary to the expectations of some supporters of President Hassan Rouhani, nothing has changed with regard to censorship since his election.
Lahiji also told that International Campaign that she was certain that all of the books she attempted to publish were in line with the defined restrictions on published content. But on Friday The Guardian quoted other victims of censorship and some Iranian officials as saying that the publishing industry’s restrictions are so arbitrary that it’s virtually impossible to anticipate what will and will not be rejected.
Even books that are cleared for publication are subject to heavy censorship, with authorities searching each text for lists of blacklisted words to delete. All of this adds up to rank Iran in the top 10 among countries that are notorious for censorship of published material.
The Guardian points out that this situation has driven artists, publishers, and the general population to seek new outlets for censored forms of expression. And these are numerous in the information age. “Censorship is futile and we are not in the 20th century any more: people have access to the internet and it has no boundaries,” says Seyedmostafa Raziei, an Iranian writer and translator who has released would-be censored materials online.
The same tactic has been employed by many others who would be subject to immediate censorship, based not necessarily on the content of their works but also on their identities. Shahla Lahiji told the International Campaign that since her books showed no sign of being undesirable, her problems with censorship might have stemmed from the fact that she was deemed an “undesirable individual.” This in turn may be related to the fact that Lahiji was the first female publisher in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Guardian reports that other people who have reached an audience through e-publishing include the openly gay poet Payam Feili and the satirist Ebrahim Nabavi.
Still, Raziei’s remark about the internet’s lack of boundaries may be somewhat naïve, as Iranian censorship famously reaches to the internet as well. The International Camapaign for Human Rights in Iran recently called attention to two instances of the Iranian authorities reasserting their control over this domain of information.
In the first place, the government has designed a new search engine called Parsijoo, which specifically bars users from accessing any content related to politics or human rights. In addition, a high-ranking government official declared on May 5 that despite the regime’s boasting about the introduction of “smart-filtering” technology, key information and communication resources such as Facebook would remain completely blocked.
“The continuation of the Facebook ban reflects the profound fear with which Iranian officials view social media networks, which have proved enormously popular in Iran, particularly among the younger generation,” said the International Campaign. That popularity continues to grow in spite of the restrictions thanks to a tech savvy generation’s ability to circumvent imposed restrictions. But the vigilance of censorship authorities still makes the use of such services implicitly risky, especially as the regime expands its abilities to monitor and identify users.