Saturday 21 November 2015
Censorship Marks World Television DayToday, November 21, is World Television Day, a day that the United Nations proclaimed nearly 20 years to recognise “the increasing impact television has on decision-making by bringing world attention to conflicts and threats to peace and security,” as well as its “potential role in sharpening the focus on other major issues, including economic and social issues.”
But to achieve these goals, press and television broadcasters need to operate free from censorship. This is not the case in Iran where television is monopolized by the state. Although the Constitution does not openly ban private broadcasting, it does give it a “monopoly over setting up stations and broadcasting radio and television programs anywhere in the country.” It also says that anyone who attempts “to set up or use such installations will be stopped from doing so and will be prosecuted legally.”
This monopolization of the media violates Iran’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [the ICCPR], which clearly states that according to the ICCPR’s Human Rights Committee, “The state should not have monopoly control over the media and should promote the plurality of the media.”
What’s more Article 175(1) of the constitution stresses that freedom of expression in radio and television broadcasting in the Islamic Republic of Iran needs to abide by “Islamic criteria” and the “best interests of the country.” But, nowhere are these terms defined by the law, leaving their interpretation at the discretion of the head of television, a person that is appointed and dismissed by the Supreme Leader.
State television must also follow certain guidelines, most crucially all programs should abide by Islamic principles, the Revolution of 1979, the constitution and the Supreme Leader. And, television should not broadcast anything that risks corrupting society, injuring Muslim sentimentalities, the unity of the Iranian people or that could be deemed propaganda for anti-revolutionary groups.
Broadly speaking, censorship in Iranian television can be broken down into two groups; censoring of foreign productions and censoring of domestic productions.
1. Foreign Productions
Foreign films and television series that are broadcast in Iran are frequently modified so that they are in-line with the state’s so-called Islamic values. This can include things like changing plot lines, character dialogue and relationship dynamics between various characters.
Words or dialogue of a sexual nature are also prohibited, which can mean that a proposal that is sexual in the original version is changed to a marriage proposal in the Iranian version. Much in the same way, a boyfriend or girlfriend becomes a person’s fiancée in the Iranian version, while a mistress may become a sister. This was the case in a series called The Secret Army [Artesh Serry], where the main character Alberra’s wife is in conflict with his sister Andreh but in the original plot, she is actually his mistress.
Certain images are also edited in foreign productions, particularly in instances where an actress’s clothing is thought to be too revealing and not in-line with Islamic standards. Wine also becomes juice in Persian versions as it is illegal to drink alcohol in Iran.
2) Domestic Productions
For a start, there are certain rules that need to be followed without question in Iranian programs, such as women’s bodies and hair need to be properly covered at all times, there can be no physical contact between women or men and the state’s ideological stance cannot be put into question. If these things are not observed, there are often consequences.
In the past few months alone, the broadcasting of a number of female actresses on state media has been banned because the women posted photos of themselves on social media where they were not wearing “proper hejab.”
A ban can also be given to a person for their supporting of reformist political figures and/or the reform movement in Iran. This happened to actresses Baran Kosary and Pegah Ahangarani, who were censored for supporting the reform movement after the 2009 election. Baran was banned from performing in certain plays and films and from being broadcast. Pegah was jailed for about two weeks and later sentenced to 18 months in prison – she is appealing the verdict.
Programs have also been taken off air because they have led to protests in the country. In February 2014, the “sarzamin kohan” series [the Ancient-land] was taken down after protests started because the series allegedly defamed the Bakhtiari tribe by depicting a Bakhtiari family as corrupt, nouveau riche and monarchist.
State television is also used as a channel to air forced confessions, working hand in hand with the Iranian intelligence services. Many confessions have been broadcast through the state media apparatus, including many prominent reformist figures such as Mohammad Ali Abtahi, journalists like Siamak Pourzand and Maziar Bahari, authors like Faraj Sarekoohi, philosophers like Ramin Jahanbegloo, student activists and even ordinary Iranians that have challenged or questioned the state’s ideology like those who released their version of the “Happy” song by Pharrell on Tehran’s rooftops.
Iran’s state television has also been used to defame and slander various critics, dissidents and unrecognized religious minorities like the Baha’is. Baha’is are systematically targeted on state television for practicing their religion, which challenges elements of Islam, including the principle that Mohammad was the last Prophet. State television has aired various programs depicting the Baha’is as morally-corrupt traitors and spies. If the Baha’is respond to this, they are charged and prosecuted for aggressive proselytization. This misrepresentation of the Baha’i community has led to many hate crimes against them across Iran, including in Semnan and Isfahan.
November 21 is a day to celebrate the role of television in establishing peace and security around the world. But, sadly, in Iran, where there is no freedom of the press and television without censorship, these things cannot be enjoyed. Instead, state television has encouraged false stereotypes and hate crimes. Let this day also be a reminder of that.