Oppression of Artists in Iran: Plus 50 Lashes

2010/05/02

Published in German daily “Tageszeitung” on 2 May 2010
Source (German): http://www.taz.de/1/politik/nahost/artikel/1/50-peitschenhiebe-kommen-noch-dazu/
English translation provided by @germantoenglish

by Bahman Nirumand

Protesting against the regime in Iran is punishable by imprisonment and corporal punishment. Film director Jafar Panahi, for example, has been imprisoned since March.

2006: A Silver Bear for filmmaker Panahi at the Berlin Film Festival

“I did what I had to do”, said Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi in an interview with BBC just after he was barred from leaving Iran for Germany, where he intended to participate in the Berlin International Festival “Berlinale”. At the international film festival in Montreal, Panahi as the chairman of the jury had walked on the red carpet wearing a green scarf, and declared his solidarity with the Iranian opposition, the “Green Movement of hope”. Moreover, he had participated in a memorial service for the student Neda Agha Soltan who was killed in the protests.

Two weeks after the travel ban, security officials raided Panahi’s house, where Panahi had invited 15 colleagues and dissidents for a professional discussion. Everyone present – including Panahi’s wife and daughter – was arrested. Since that day, the 1st of March, Panahi is being held in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison.

Initially the prosecutor announced that Panahi’s detention was not politically motivated; Panahi allegedly was arrested for a “criminal act”. Only several weeks later, Minister of Culture Mohammad Hosseini declared that according to information provided to him, Panahi had intended to make a film about the events following the disputed re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The rigged election had triggered massive protests.

Panahi, aged 49, is one of Iran’s internationally most renowned film makers. At the 2006 Berlinale he received a Silver Bear for his movie “Offside”. His film “The Circle” was awarded with a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2000. In 1995, his film “The White Balloon” won the award for the best debut film in Cannes. This year he was invited to Berlin as an honorary guest. “We are worried and deeply regret that an internationally awarded filmmaker was detained on grounds of his artistic work”, the festival management stated after the arrest.

Post-election protests
Panahi, however, is not the only filmmaker and artist who suffers from the effects of repression against dissidents. The massive protests that followed the elections, and the role that creative artists had in them, drew the regime’s attention to the fact that the impact of culture and art on the development of a society is far bigger than the effect of political slogans, and that this impact is hard to control and prevent.

Indeed: Already during the election campaign, and even more so after the mass protests, art, music, and literature have flourished amazingly. Elaborate posters were designed, songs were composed, poems were written, films were produced, anecdotes and jokes were spread. The green-color-compositions were so imaginative that hardly any observer could restrain from participating in the uprising. Today, the song by popular singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian is as well-known in Iran as the national anthem. “Come with me, don’t stay alone, our common pain will not be healed in solitude”.

Also, the role of tens of thousands of bloggers, website operators, and journalists should not be underestimated, who with much wit and fantasy disseminated the demands of the movement and, despite rigorous censorship, made information available to the public in- and outside the country. While foreign journalists and agencies were banned from covering the protests, Iranian videographers provided foreign media with reports on the events. They will receive this year’s Henri-Nannen-Award, the most important award to honor the work of journalists.

In Iran, however, they were severely punished for this work. Hundreds of artists, writers, film makers, bloggers, and journalists were arrested, tortured in the prisons, forced to make false confessions and handed severe sentences in show trials.

58 year old filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad is one of them. From the viewpoint of the authorities, he seemed to be above all suspicion – for years he had been loyal to the regime. He made documentaries and wrote articles for the ultra-conservative daily “Keyhan”. When he observed the brutal actions of the security forces against dissenters during a protest, however, he dissociated himself from the rulers. He wrote a letter of protest to revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei, urging him to apologize for the violent crackdown on protesters. In his most recent of all in all four letters to the leader he writes: “I see fewer and fewer people around you. To be the leader of a small minority is nothing to be proud of.”

Slandering the Islamic Republic
Nourizad was sentenced to three years and six months in prison and 50 lashes. According to the presiding judge, the sentence comprises of one year for propaganda against the state and slandering the Islamic Republic, two years for insulting the revolutionary leader, 91 days for insulting the chief of the judiciary, 91 days for insulting the president, and 50 lashes for insulting the Friday prayer leader in the city of Mashhad.

Fatemeh Nourizad, his wife, recently reported after a prison visit that her husband was severely tortured during interrogations and filed a complaint with the judiciary on the issue. He fasted for 106 days to protest against the way he was treated.

In late March, forty film makers and writers in an open letter called for the immediate release of their colleagues from detention. It is part of the vested rights of any artist and writer to freely exercise their professions and freely express their views, the letter stated.

The deprivation of these rights has driven numerous Iranian writers, artists, and journalists into exile. Some of those who are still in Iran and whose works can not be published inside the country, try to publish their works abroad. Last year alone, three renowned Iranian writers – Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Shahryar Mandanipour, and Amir Hassan Cheheltan, published their novels in German translations. The originals were submitted to the censorship office in Tehran long ago. Film director Abbas Kiarostami has been living abroad for several years. “I have long since lost hope to ever be able to work in my home country again”, he writes.

The regime, however, tries to deprive them even of this sad option. Like Panahi, numerous other artists and writers are forbidden to travel. One easily gets suspected of “collaboration with foreign enemies” and cooperation with foreign intelligence services. The regime attempts to spread fear and mistrust. For this reason, it is not unusual that creative artists resort to self-censorship.

“Everybody needs to have a license”
Meanwhile, the deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Javad Shamghadri, came up with a new idea: Film makers should produce only films that are in line with Islamic faith and moral, express the contents of the Quran, and tell the “glorious history of Islam”. They are allowed to engage in politics – by educating the nation about the “soft war” staged by foreign powers, the struggle against imperialism, and the “holy resistance of Muslims”.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance will decide who is allowed to work as a film maker in the future. “Everybody needs to have a license”, says Shamghadri. “This is the bottleneck that everybody must pass. It is like the first night at the grave.” But the new regulations do not grant equal rights even to those who overcome these obstacles. In the future there will be four categories of film makers. Those in the first category are allowed to make three films per year, those in the second category two films, those in the third category only one film. The rest will not get a permit at all. The rest – that goes without saying – comprises of all those who make films that are critical of the society.

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