Iran's Leader Pushes Book Censorship

For the most part, former president Mohammed Khatami left the publishing industry alone. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's censors are holding up the printing of thousands of books.

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The Iranian government is cracking down on the book publishing industry. Under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it has become increasingly difficult to get a book into print. Government censors have refused to issue permits for thousands of books. NPR's Mike Shuster was in Tehran and has this report.

MIKE SHUSTER: Book censorship has been a fact of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran for the past quarter century. But under the previous president, the moderate reformer Mohammed Khatami, book censorship was reduced to a minimum. Not so now under hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Professor ABBAS MILANI (Director of Iran Studies, Stanford University): The situation has drastically worsened.

SHUSTER: Abbas Milani - the director of the Iran studies program at Stanford University - is a well-known author in Iran. His biography of the shah of Iran's long-time prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, titled "The Persian Sphinx," was published a few years ago. Another book of essays, titled "The King of Shadows," has been held up in the ministry of culture for more than a year and a half, with no explanation of why it can't be published.

Prof. MILANI: Now Ahmadinejad had decreed that every book that got permission during the Khatami era for eight years, every one of those books have now to go back and be reviewed again. And almost all of them are being blocked.

SHUSTER: The government is not yet seizing books from the bookstores, but if a publisher wants to reprint a book approved during the Khatami period, new government permission must be granted. As a result, thousands of books are in what might be called government censorship limbo, where censors hold the book without saying yes or no.

Independent publisher Sayid Artihali(ph), who runs Octoran(ph) Publishing in Tehran, says he has several books that can't get by the government censors.

Mr. SAYID ARTIHALI (Octoran Publishing): (Through translator) It's getting more difficult. And you could say they are more sensitive now. I had books - like I have four books that is being published before, but now they have asked me to take it back and to read it again.

SHUSTER: The way censorship works in Iran, an author submits a manuscript to a publisher. The publisher must then print a fully realized copy of the book and submit that to the government censors in the Ministry of Culture. Ministry bureaucrats then read it. At that point, authors and publishers face unpredictable action or non-action by the ministry, says Abbas Milani.

Prof. MILANI: You're informed of what they don't like if they decide to answer you. What has happened in the case of "King of Shadows" is that they have simply refused to even tell us what it is that they don't like. Sometimes they keep a book in this kind of a limbo for several years.

SHUSTER: Books that criticize the Iranian government or challenge Islam or that are sexual in nature have always had a tough time getting past government censors. President Ahmadinejad appears to have said about tightening the restrictions severely. He appointed as minister of culture, Hussein Saffar Harandi, a hard-line conservative journalist. And gradually, over the past year and a half, it has become more and more difficult to publish a book in Iran.

Late last year, even Iran's foremost writer of the 20th century, Sadegh Hedayat, faced censorship. Hedayat died in 1951, and his books are widely held in Iran. But his classic, "The Blind Owl" - a dark portrait of drug addiction and mental collapse - was recently denied reprint permission.

Emad Baghi, a well-known writer and human rights activists, says Iran is one of the most difficult nations in the world to get a book published.

Mr. EMAD BAGHI (Writer, Human Rights Activist): (Through translator) I calculated how many pages of books are printed each second. And in my calculation, I got 400,000 pages per second of book that is getting printed in the world. And I calculate the number of pages in Iran. I only got one page per second.

SHUSTER: Even with today's censorship, things can get much worse for writers in Iran. In the past, journalists have been murdered and writers have been jailed. Baghi himself spent three years in prison for writing such titles as "Human Rights and Religion" and "The Tragedy of Democracy in Iran." Even when he was in prison a few years ago, he was hauled back in front of a judge because bootlegged copies of his books had turned up, the work of an underground printer.

Mr. BAGHI: (Through translator) And then he tell the guy, the judge that you think I'm so powerful that they can print my books while I'm in prison? But what I want, if you find the guy who print it, you should introduce me. Then I can get my share.

SHUSTER: Baghi is out of prison now and still writing. Several of his books that were printed legally years ago have been refused permission for reprint. Some publishers have so many books held up that they may be forced to go out of business, says Abbas Milani.

Prof. MILANI: Right now, I know of publishers who have 50 different volumes completely languishing in the storage houses. And they're about to go broke.

SHUSTER: That could very well be the goal of the Ahmadinejad government, to put independent book publishers in Iran out of existence.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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