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Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Islamic Republic Uncensored
Censorship did not work, so now the Iranian authorities encourage a twin-track culture, producing their own versions of popular media (which they can easily deny)
By Shervin Ahmadi
On a weekday in March the streets of Tehran were deserted, as many of its 14 million inhabitants had gone away for Norouz – the Iranian New Year, marking the beginning of spring. In the Tajrish bazaar in the north of the city, a hand-written notice on card stood out: the latest DVD of Bitter Coffee was in stock. This comedy series, co-written, directed and produced by its star, Mehran Modiri, is available everywhere, in grocery shops and newspaper stands. Modiri has been appearing on Iranian television for 20 years, and his act has evolved with society. He uses gentle humour and farce, and never criticises the regime; although he occasionally pokes fun at television presenters based abroad, his material is not usually political.
Each Bitter Coffee DVD covers three episodes, and sells 1.5m copies, at $2 (easily affordable by the middle classes) to discourage pirating, which is widespread. The series has its own website, Facebook page and Twitter account, and entries on Wikipedia in Persian and English. It is set in a medieval royal court, ridiculing courtiers and despotism. Viewers can draw parallels between the characters and historical personalities, from members of the former regime (including Reza Shah) to those currently in power.
On 2 April the daily newspaper Shargh reported that the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance would block release of the 20th DVD, because it wanted to “make some modifications for administrative reasons.” The online site Aftab revealed the real reason: one of the characters resembled a senior member of government. In the end the DVD appeared without modifications.
Apart from such occasional, hesitant attempts at censorship, the authorities tolerate, and even encourage, a parallel network disseminating material including pirated and locally subtitled US action films, and Iranian films that have not been given a distribution licence, such as Ali Santoori by Dariush Mehrjui, about drug-taking teenagers with no prospects. People can also buy DVDs of programmes already broadcast on official channels. The tight control of the media during the first decade of the revolution, which was a failure, has given way to a less strict policy towards popular and youth culture. The authorities now saturate it with material they regard as “less dangerous”, while maintaining complete control over politics.
Two arenas are developing in parallel: the first is the official voice of the Islamic Republic; the second, less controlled, is allowed to deviate from the political and moral principles of the regime because the authorities can deny responsibility. It started out as a counter to the influence of imported western culture. Several singers emerged, copying the pop music style of Los Angeles (home to the largest Iranian community abroad), and mimicking, timidly at first, their Californian competitors. Some sounded the same as famous exiled singers, but performed poems with a mystic content. Then a second wave of more talented artists arrived. After a while their music and lyrics sounded exactly the same as those produced abroad, which the regime says spread corruption (Mofsedin fil arz, the expression the authorities use to describe “westernised” people). Pop and rock music, until recently illegal and produced underground, are also distributed through this semi-official network, although less widely (1).
The official media scene has also become more diverse. There are now more state TV channels, and their content is more varied. There are locally produced series, often with big budgets, including a Hollywood-style history of the religious/historical characters Yusuf (Joseph) and Zuleika, political histories, and comedies. Mehran Modiri has helped this transformation.
In the 1990s radio stations such as Payam, which originally just broadcast Tehran traffic reports, began playing music previously banned. Pop, which disappeared after the revolution, has made a comeback, and since it has been played on official channels it has become more acceptable to conservatives. In the 2000s, some music even incorporated nohe elements (Islamic liturgy commemorating the death of Imam Hussein in 690).
The media war intensified with satellite channels. Despite an official ban on dishes, many people have them, even in the countryside, and the government has given up trying to get rid of them. The government makes it clear that state channels could never have the same freedom as satellite channels to voice opinions and criticism in political news programmes. But political news in Iran (as elsewhere) does not attract a large audience, so the regime has concentrated on other areas. It has decided to turn a blind eye to programmes that are not directly political, which it judges “less dangerous”, even if they go against the moral principles of the regime. Today there are officially banned channels broadcasting non-stop music videos which do not correspond to “Islamic values”, with adverts that include Iranian mobile phone numbers.
The decision as to what material is “less dangerous” is arbitrary. A film could be non-political, but arouse desire for western consumer lifestyles. Most of the urban middle class already has this desire – sometimes to excess. Iran has become the second biggest importer of cosmetics in the Middle East, seventh biggest in the world. And some commercial festivals, such as St Valentine’s Day, unheard of 30 years ago, are now celebrated in the cities.
For the last three years the authorities have been confronted with the success of Farsi 1, a mass-audience television station owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, showing Latin American soap operas. The US journalist Dexter Filkins wrote that Farsi 1 had become so popular it was a threat to the government (2).
Notes & References
-This commentary was published in Le Monde Diplomatique in its July Issue
-Shervin Ahmadi is a journalist and editor of the Persian edition of Le Monde diplomatique
-(1) See Wendy Kristianasen, “The view from Tehran Avenuen”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, February 2004
-(2) The New York Times, 21 November 2010