Censorship in Presses

Censorship of the Press in the Memoirs of Journalists of the Pahlavi Period

Meisam Gholampour
Translated by: Zahra Hosseinian


In the history of the Pahlavi period press, the memoirs of journalists couldn’t be ignored and can be found in various sources. Journalists have mentioned several issues in their memoirs, one of which is the censorship in the press of that time. There are many sayings and writings in this regard. At the present we have taken a look at some of the memoirs which refer to the story of press censorship.


When a Literary Magazine Was Censored

Memoirs of Parviz Natelkhanlari, owner of the famous Sokhan literary magazine, is one the memoirs which points to the censorship. In his memoirs, Khanlari first points out that there was no censorship in the thirty years or so since Sokhan Magazine was published in the early 1920s; perhaps because they thought that Sokhan was a literary magazine which had not many readers and, of course, was not dangerous. But it was not until the early 1950s when censorship began. It seems that the publication of some poems had suspected the Ministry of Intelligence at that time; including the translation of a poem by a Polish poet entitled "What is Socialism", as well as a poem in mourning for Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh (although it was not directly) and a poem by Houshang Ebtehaj which implicitly referred to the Siahkal incident. After that the Ministry of Intelligence banned the distribution of Sokhan magazine before it was reviewed and licensed. According to Khanlari, a list of thirty-five people was given to the Sokhan publication's office, explaining that they were banned from writing and had no right to write anything. One of those banned writer was Dr. Mohammad Reza Bateni, the father of linguistics. Khanlari dared to publish Bateni's article again, given that his articles were in the field of linguistics and had nothing to do with political issues. But surprisingly, the issue was not allowed to be published until all the pages containing the article were cut off from the magazine. Once the abbreviation of his name, ‘M.R.B’, was used, but this trick was not to be overlooked by observers, and the editors were forced to blacken the letters to allow the magazine to be published.

According to Khanlari, censorship has intensified since then. In one of the issues, for example a poem by Mehdi Akhavan Sales was published, one of its lines had the following theme: "The sound of an explosion could be heard in our alley." The censors insisted on removing it. Khanlari protested that "the blast news is announced in the official newspapers every day." The answer, however, was that it was another matter, and such a thing should not point in poetry. Another example of censorship stated by the Khanlari was the remove of a story about a peasant who had a farm next to the Lake Hamoon, had lost his farm due to the dryness of the lake and had become miserable. That issue of the magazine was not allowed to be published because of this story. Khanlari contacts the Minister of Intelligence to find out the reason behind it. In this conversation, Khanlari asks the minister whether the lack of rain and the drying up of the lake is related to domestic or foreign policy. Khanlari's argument was that the drying up of the lake water was due to the lack of rain, but the magazine was banned for this reason! The minister promised to investigate, and an hour later, the head of newspaper affairs at the Ministry of Intelligence called and said that despite the land reform, it should not be written that the fields would dry up! Khanlari, on the other hand, said that the land reform did not promise to rain, and in response he heard that in any case, such material is heard by the foreigners and becomes a pretext for blaming the regime. There was no choice but to give up: "I saw that arguing with such people is useless. I hung up the phone and again we had to cut a few pages of the magazine and publish it incompletely."[1]


Censorship of the Week Horoscope

Ali Behzadi, the owner of the weekly magazine Sepid va Siah, has also spoken about censorship and censors of the Pahlavi period on various occasions. For instance, in one of his writings he mentioned that it was customary at that time for magazines to devote a page to Tasseography. In these pages, the characteristics of the people born in each month were written and also the events was anticipated which was supposed to be happened in that week. The content of the horoscopes was often about the good or bad characteristics of those born each month, giving hope for the good things that awaited them, warning them against bad events, and a little advice. On the other hand, some may remember that a number of Pahlavi family members were born in Aban (covering October 23 to 21 November). According to Behzadi, at first no one paid attention to the contents of this page and the censors ignored it. But something caused the censors to focus on this page and the editors of the magazines to pay more attention to the contents and to give privileges to those born in Aban; for example, the had to write that all people born in Aban are good people and great things will always happen to them. Behzadi writes: apparently writing things like "This week is not a good one for you and your enemies are trying to hit you hard" or "Do not bother people so much. Try to get rid of the grudge you have become accustomed to." And perhaps worse points, which probably had consequences, caused journalists to flatter all those born in Aban: "For this reason, we see that in most of the fortune-telling of those years, those born in the month of Aban were both well-introduced and good things happened to them!"[2]


The Lack of knowledge of a Censor Led to a Gaffe

Mahmoud Afshar also has a short and strange story about censorship. In his memoir, he recounted what he heard about a less-knowledgeable official, who had been appointed to censor the media. Apparently, due to lack of knowledge, a censor suspected to one of Hafez's poem in which the name of Reza was mentioned. He assumed the word ‘Reza’ as a special name and was afraid that it affected his superiors, including the Shah himself whose name was Reza. As a result, he finds a solution in censoring the newspaper. He requested the typist to insert the name of ‘Hassan’ instead of ‘Reza’, and the poem was finally published with this change![3]


Journalists Who Could Not Survive Without Censors

In another memoir, Ali Behzadi speaks of the temporary abolition of censorship in the early 1961. According to him, until the beginning of this year and before the election of Democratic Kennedy as President of the United States, the censorship of the press in Iran was strictly implemented. Every day, SAVAK press officers called the editors of magazines and newspapers and gave them instructions on what to write and what not to write. Also, the sample of ready-to-publish work, both in magazines and in newspapers, was taken to SAVAK by Muharram Ali Khan (a well-known press censor) and allowed to be published only after reviewing and making changes to them. But at the above said time, Muharram Ali Khan did not go to get the presses, as usual. Such an event, i.e. uncensored press before release, was unprecedented since the 1953 Iranian coup d'état. Therefore, some publications, which did not know what the story was, released their publications uncensored for the first time since August 19th. Interestingly, some more conservative journalists, who apparently accustomed to tolerating censorship, voluntarily tried to communicate with the SAVAK press section for fear of reprimand and punishment, when no SAVAK agent came to them; but, the phones rang and no one picked up. According to Behzadi, some other journalists mocked their conservative colleagues, but ‘those who were wiser said: "A regime based on dictatorship and censorship cannot change its approach. Sooner or later, they will come to us and retaliate these days." The future showed that they were right.’[4]

The Censors Who Led the Press Strike

One of the most important reactions of the press against censorship was the first nationwide strike in the country in 1978. In his memories, Mohammad Bolouri, one of the journalists of that time, described his views on confrontation of the press with censorship. According to Bolouri, on the morning of October 11, 1978, at 9:30 a.m., when Kayhan employees were working in the editorial office, two colonels of martial law entered. They went to the editorial board room without introducing themselves. At the time, Bolouri was in charge of the editorial board. Meanwhile, the servant who was taking the news to the typesetting unit whispered in Bolouri’s ear that the colonels asked to show the news to them before going to the typesetting unit. The blade of censorship had become sharper than ever. After a while, silence reigned in the editorial office. The members of the editorial board, who numbered one hundred and sixty-one, resigned. That happened in the heat of the protests and strikes in the fall of 1978. In fact, it was a space where journalists should react in return, and so it was. This is how the first press strike in 1978 took shape. The presence of several colonels in the Ettelaat Newspaper had created a similar situation. After consultations, the officers left, and the newspaper's director spoke of resuming work; but as mentioned, the space was different: "I saw a special state in several staffs and I felt that some of them might start working. I said: ‘Censorship has apparently gone, but as long as censorship continues, the strike will continue, unless the government guarantees the freedom of speech.’ At that point, even many words, such as war, rose, night, etc., were censored." Bolouri’s writing shows the disagreement of the press. Some believed that the publication of the newspaper should continue in order the people to be informed of the news of the revolution, but most of them said that the strike and the non-publication of the newspapers was the loudest cry of protest. The press immediately issued a statement informing the people why they were on strike. The welcome of the people who went to the newspaper office with bouquets of flowers was also noteworthy. According to Bolouri, in order for the strike to be taken seriously, representatives were elected from various sections of the Ettelaat newspapers, Kayhan and Ayandegan, as well as the Writers 'and Journalists' Syndicate. The board of representatives issued a statement and negotiated its contents with the government. In the midst of the debate, one of the clauses in the statement, which referred to the government's commitment to lift any censorship of the press, was strongly opposed by the government. At the end, however, the press did not back down, and the government agreed to sign the statement. The result was clear: "Newspapers were published in staggering and wide circulation. Printing machines ran constantly. Kayhan and Ettelaat were published in a circulation of more than one million copies, and this was the result of a strike."[5]


The Contents That Censored Once and Reprinted

The memoirs of Mohammad Atiqpour also refer briefly to the story of press censorship. Early in his work in the press, Atiqpour was responsible for a variety of tasks, including delivering letters to offices, receiving the article of writers and handing them to the printing part, archiving, and editing papers. But going to the office of writings of the police station (censorship department) was considered the worst task by him. His job was to deliver the ready-to-print material there so that censors and police inspectors to review and censor them and then to seal the remaining with ‘authorized’. The seal was a license to publish. On the advice of the editor, Atiqpour pretended himself as an illiterate and dumb person in the police station, so that he could take the censored material in the name of waste paper for trash cans and secretly archive them for other occasions. In fact, experience had taught them such a lesson; because the auditors sometimes did not realize that the article they had sealed as ‘authorized’ had been censored or misspelled some time ago, or that, for example, items that were banned by one auditor were allowed to be published by another, because there was no organized rules![6]


The Censor Colonel Who Himself Faced the Censorship Barrier

Mahmoud Tolouei writes about his views on freedom and censorship in his book, Actors of the Pahlavi Era, where he talks about the press. Noting that he was the editor-in-chief of Khandaniha magazine from 1957 to 1967, Tolouei writes that he dealt with one of the "worst" censors of the Security Organization, Colonel Hojbar Kiani, for a while. In order not to cause any problems, during all the time that Tolouei was the editor of the Khandaniha magazine, he put the so-called "not authorized" material in the first ten pages of the magazine which was under print, when the sample magazine was sent to the security organization. On the other hand, he prepared the materials which should be replaced in case of censorship. Of course, many of these were overlooked, and every some weeks he had to change something, which was not a difficult task given the previous predictions; until one day noon, when Colonel Kiani called Toloui and ordered him to delete the photo and article which was prepared about one of the female singers of that period. The problem was that this photo and article were in the middle pages of the magazine which had already been published, and changing it meant rewriting and reprinting the pages in question, resulting in a delay in the publication of the magazine. Toloui shared the problem with the colonel and "curiously" [in his own words] added that what does this have to do with political issues and the interests of the country?! The colonel's response, however, was short and angrily: "It’s my duty to recognize it. You should only to obey." And not to wait for Toloui’s answer, he hung up angrily. After this unfinished conversation, Toloui reviewed the news. It referred to the disappearance of the singer and quoted the rumor that one of the influential people who fell in love with her, gave her a lot of money and requested no longer she attended in public. Eventually, the problem was resolved due to the magazine director's connections with the authorities. And when Toloui asked about it, he realized that one of the security authorities has fallen in love with her and that news, in fact, offended him. Interestingly, according to Toloui’s memories, at length the fox was brought to the furrier, and the colonel, who was appointed by the security serviced to censor, should deal with the press again; although, in another role. At that time, the control of the press was taken away from the security organization and handed over to the Ministry of Intelligence. Colonel Kiani had a request from Khandaniha Magazine: "he said, 'Sir... I had property and interests in Booin-Zahra. After the earthquake, the Lion and Sun government embezzled two-thirds of the cash and non-cash aids given to the earthquake victims. He begged us, ‘for God's sake please publish these things…’, while presenting evidence against the authorities of the Red Lion and Sun!' Toloui's answer, of course, implicitly indicated that the work of the new censors was more accurate: "I said, ‘Colonel! The same job you did a few years ago, now other people in the Ministry of Intelligence are doing it more carefully and delicately. Perhaps you, who had a military profession, missed some items, but these censors are compromiser and scrutinize everything and do not allow such material to be released!"

In the same part of his book, Mahmoud Tolouei also refers to the 1970s. According to him, censorship of the press was more severe than ever between 1974 (when the one-party system was announced) and 1978 (when the political open space was announced). During this period, not only the contents of newspapers and magazines were precisely controlled by the Ministry of Intelligence, but also the government editors of some publications had been themselves commissioned. Toloui also mentions the names of two or three of them. At the same time, he released a magazine called "World Issues," which was a specialized magazine on international issues and did not address much the domestic issues. According to Toloui, even this specialized magazine, with all the precautions and avoidance of addressing the internal issues, was not safe from the control and supervision of the press department of the Ministry of Intelligence and was censored many times. Because it referred to the human rights or general issues related to dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the world (which was taken personally by the relevant authorities) and once due to an article which was about Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.[7]



[1] Khanlari, Ghafeleh Salar Sokhan, Tehran, Alborz, 1991, pp. 469-471.

[2] Ali Behzadi, "Flattery in the Iranian Press", Kelk Monthly, No. 39, June 1993, pp. 72 and 73.

[3] Mahmoud Hakimi, Stories from the era of Reza Shah, Tehran, Qalam, 1986, pp. 181 and 182.

[4] Seyed Farid Ghasemi, Press Memoirs, Tehran, Abi, 2004, pp. 133 and 134.

[5] Mohammad Bolouri, "The First Press Strike", Research Journal of Iranian Press History, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1997, pp. 232-235.

[6] Mohammad Atiqpour, Bread Revolt; The tragedy of December 1942, in addition to the author's memoirs of the events of that day, Tehran, Sharif Publishing, 2000, pp. 145 and 146.

[7] Mahmoud Tolouei, Actors of the Pahlavi Era; From Foroughi to Fardoust, Vol. 2, Tehran, Alam, 1993, pp. 792-796.

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