Human rights watchdogs repeatedly shame Iran as one of the world’s worst offenders against freedom of expression, a harsh censor with little compunction about cracking down on critics with direct methods such as prior restraint and violent means of repression. But Iran, like other states around the world, is increasingly using other, more unorthodox ways of controlling speech – what might be called “indirect censorship”.
Instead of the classic methods of removing content wholesale or blocking access to it, indirect censorship methods make producing or accessing “undesirable” ideas and information costly, technically difficult or legally risky. They often do so via unrelated laws, or by bypassing weak or nonexistent protective regulations. Deployed by both governments and private actors, these methods often don’t fall under conventional definitions of censorship, and are therefore often not condemned as such.
The Iranian government is using indirect censorship partly out of geopolitical necessity. Tehran clearly wants to improve relations with the West, but the country’s domestic human rights situation is a major obstacle – and its attitudes to freedom of speech are a particular sticking point. Since the government is hardly inclined to fundamentally change its ways, it has come up with a typically neoliberal solution: to transfer responsibility for enforcing censorship to the private sector.
In a speech at Tehran’s 2016 International Book Fair, president Hassan Rouhani proposed that the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance hand its job of censoring books and cultural products to an association of writers and publishers. His government promoted this idea as an initiative to relax book censorship, and it was broadly accepted as such by the Western media. But because there are few clear regulations regarding censorship and a huge range of “sensitive” subjects, it would more likely have the opposite effect.
The plan is currently in its pilot stage, and if it becomes operational, the government will free itself from direct responsibility for book censorship. It would be left to publishers and writers themselves to enforce vague “red lines”, including upon themselves, lest they fall foul of a judiciary capable of seizing books after publication and inflicting paralysing financial damage.
This would inculcate a conservative culture of self-censorship, with writers and publishers desperate to avoid unbearable financial or legal consequences taking an even more cautious and strict approach than the government itself.