The Iranian Regime Will Pay for Media Censorship
An Interview with Masoud Behnoud
Masoud Behnoud is an Iranian writer, journalist and film maker. He started his career as a journalist in 1964. He has written several books on the politics and contemporary history of Iran. As a journalist, he has written for a variety of newspapers, including Ayandegan and Tehran-e Mosavar. He has founded over twenty newspapers and magazines, none of which remain in print.
In the aftermath of the tenth presidential election in Iran and in response to the alleged election fraud, a huge movement, known as the Green Movement, was established. Before getting to the main point of this interview, tell us your opinion of the leaders of this movement. Does the Green Movement belong to the intelligentsia, or does it represent the aspirations of the larger populace?
I don’t believe this is an elite movement. During the Second of Khordad Movement, the struggle for freedom and social development had an elite aspect, as in the Constitutional Revolution. But the Green Movement has been, and remains, a mass movement on the part of the entire society. One of the reasons may be that the Green Movement is not a secular movement per se and has some religious tendencies as well. Those movements that are driven by the elite, such as the Constitutional Movement, where 98 percent of the population was illiterate and the clergy were among its leaders, are secular movements and even the law that it produced was based on the Belgian legal code. However, in the Green Movement, the written laws fall under the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. The Green Movement views Ayatollah Montazeri as an intellectual leader, not Mirza Malkum Khan. For this reason, the Green Movement cannot be considered an elite movement, but rather a mass movement. The young people of the current generation have been raised in a religious environment and yet have a strong desire for freedom. The number of Iranian students, even compared to other modern countries, is large. They are not embarrassed by their beliefs. For example, they are not ashamed to live in London yet pray and practice their religion. From the moment this movement started, the fact that several of the leftist groups outside the country joined it, made me laugh. But my feeling was that they had no other choice than to look toward the movement in Tehran, follow it and make it their own. However, it is obvious that they will dismount soon.
Journalists played an important role during Second of Khordad Movement and in the reform movement, and several even received important posts in the government of President Mohammad Khatami government. In your opinion, what role do journalists play in this movement and what significance does this role have?
We need to revisit the Second of Khordad Movement through historical records to see if this has indeed been the case. From the start of the reform movement, the disapproval of its supporters could be summed up through the articles in Hamshahri newspaper, which had itself been under pressure and been forced to amend itself by order of regime leadership. Moreover, personalities such as Shamsolvaezin had been forced out. At best, a few articles would be printed in the interior pages that would, for example, make note of Dr. Soroush and this was the most it could do. Another newspaper was Salam, which had its own limitations during Rafsanjani’s period. Therefore, the environment was too censored for journalists to have a real effect; there was no real media.
Maybe it would be better to say that the media after the Second of Khordad had to face reforms.
One year after the Second of Khordad Movement and Khatami’s response, other newspapers came into being. This is after the fact, but during the events, certain magazines did exist that were more influential, such as Adineh which had a circulation of thirty thousand. According to Faraj Sarkouhi, the reason why this magazine was prominent was because I wrote several articles for each issue where I would attempt to compromise with the government. Since I was on the side of labor and they were on the extreme right, it was as if a door had opened within Adineh. Other magazines did not have this level of influence and remained more literary. So I don’t believe that Iranian journalism did anything for the Second of Khordad Movement. On the other hand, the Second of Khordad Movement did a huge deed for Iranian journalism and that was to permit the operation of over 200 newspapers. This was also its biggest crime in the eyes of the right, and specifically Mr. Khamenei. In this way, a new generation of journalists was born in Iran, leading to a new opportunity. Of course, those from the outside believe that the post-Second of Khordad Movement journalists were too passive and should have acted in a more aggressive manner. I sometimes come across such demands as “you should have also covered the executions during the 1980’s,” while if you live in Iran, your view of matters is not the same. Of course, others believe that we became too excited and went too far. Regardless, the Second of Khordad Movement, or the Second of Khordad incident itself, was firmly established through journalism.
And the Green Movement?
The Second of Khordad generation of journalists worked hard to bring about the Green Movement. There are currently no publications without a journalist that emerged from the Second of Khordad period, and even right wing newspapers use these journalists. The religious populists, reliant on the Imam Zaman () and Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory, are not enthusiastic about these journalists’ dedication and commitment. Thus, the ability of the journalists to get their message out to the larger population, before the government had a chance to close down the newspapers, came as an unexpected shock to the religious populists. They were not prepared to compromise even a bit with the accusations of fraud, and claim that it is the Greens who have committed fraud. Since they had found someone [Ahmadinejad] who managed to find $40 billion to distribute as handouts amongst the people in four years, wreck the Iranian economy and its foundations, and repeat the people’s words - especially the claim that Hashemi Rafsanjani has become “Akbar Shah.” Ahmadinejad follows no intellectual or scientific principle, and in order to cater to the people and insure his re-election for another 4 year term had shut down the nation’s National Planning Organization. This basically means that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s faction has put the country up for sale in order to gain votes. They thought that by allowing relative freedom for the media, they would be able to carry out such a plan. It was very obvious that after the elections, everything would fall into disarray, it was completely obvious. We had already written about and predicted this.
What do you mean by “relative freedom”?
During the first year of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the media was more free than under Khatami’s rule. Look at the critics of Salam newspaper where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is first in line. When they assumed power, and accomplished their goal, they laid off some of the pressure. They assumed that because they were populists and had the backing of the people, the newspapers could be free to do whatever they wanted and there would be no ramifications whatsoever. Why would someone who gets in a van to distribute 200 million tumans in cash across villages in the countryside, fear newspaper opinions? Today, he goes to various towns and while they do close the schools and offices, there are barely 3,000 people who come to welcome him. This is because the bottom fell out of the barrel and the journalists did their thing before they were shut down. Because he was confident during that first year, he gave the media more relative freedom, but now that he has completely lost all of his self-confidence, his government has become the worst when it comes to the media. For the first time, the government is shutting down publications without consultation with the judiciary. As a result, the situation is such that a destiny worse than that of Hashemi Rafsanjani awaits this government and it will pay for cracking down on the media.
It might seem that the Iranian media is not all that powerful when in publication, but when they are shut down their powers multiply. It was this same power that brought down the Shah’s regime. The Shah’s regime collapsed at the height of a censorship campaign. There were no opposition newspapers and a Savak official would sit next to us and determine the number of columns. It was exactly in such an environment that the Shah’s government crumbled. Similarly, the Iranian media is dangerous for the regime in power. It is as if there is a silent pact between the media and the people based on which the media says that “if I fall, you should accept the worst case scenario you can think of as that will be the correct one.” The years between 1976 and 1978 was the height of the Shah’s censorship campaign and dictatorial muscle flexing. However, it ended in revolution. The Islamic Republic did not know how to censor in the beginning and wanted to grant freedoms to everyone. The first person the Islamic Republic censored was Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. Thirty one years ago I wrote in Tehran-e Mosavar, “I worry about your fate. You have started something that puts you at the same rank of Mohammad Reza Shah.” Ghotbazeh was executed soon after this. The only figures whose names have not been tainted are Mossadegh and Bazargan, who never had anything to do with the media. Those who imagine that cracking down on the media serves a good deed for the nation become like Reza Khan, who served Iran well but is not a loved figure, mainly because he cut off access to the information services.
The Iranian regime continues to rely on conspiracy theories and believes that the recent clashes were orchestrated by Persian language media outside of the country. How do you assess the role and influence of Persian language media outside the country?
Foreign media does have a strong influence. I will give you an example from the Shah’s time. The Shah had reigned for 30 years. He was experienced and had met with world leaders. He had met with Stalin and de Gaulle and Churchill. Despite all this, in the end he blamed the BBC for the revolution and believed if the BBC were turned off, there would not have been a revolution. Many of his followers still believe this, so this is a larger issue and cannot just be attributed to the Islamic Republic. Gaddafi and King Abdullah share this opinion, as did Saddam. All dictators think this way. Why? Here is another example. Imagine a father who has locked up his own child, leaving him without radio or television but just a few books that he has pre-approved. Now, if a neighbor throws over a cable to this child so that he can become aware of what is going on in the world, then the authority of the father will be tarnished and his whole plan will fall apart. For this same reason, I believe that the influence of media from outside the country is great. More than being beholden to its expertise and quality, we should be indebted to its ability to challenge a regime that wants to keep its children isolated just as that father did, and in a world where cables are highly accessible to that child.