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Press censorship in the Reza Shah era, 1925-411

Karim Soleimani


The reign of Reza Shah was the result of a military coup d’etat. Following the successful coup of 3 Esfand 1299 (21 February 1921) Reza Khan gradually extended and enforced his power. Simultaneously, he distributed many of the important posts in the country among his colleagues in the military. In military regimes the press has no place but to praise the dictator. Perhaps this attitude actually contributed to the fact that during all his years in power Reza Shah never bothered to alter or replace the press law (qanun-e matbu‘at) from the constitutional period, issued 5 Moharram 1326 (8 February 1908). Two supplementary articles, from 10 Aban 1301 (2 November 1922), which were the result of much hard work by the members of the fourth Majles (1 Tir 1300 to Khordad 130 /June 1921 to 30 June 1923) equally failed to attract the attention of Reza Shah, since he, and the censoring system he had created, did not feel the slightest need to refer to the law. During this period censorship was one of the most important tools with which the government imagined it could maintain order and stability. The press-censoring apparatus in the Reza Shah era operated according to the personal taste of the person or organization at its head during that particular period of time.

The documents available at the Iranian National Archives (Sazman-e Asnad-e Melli-ye Iran) are the most important sources used in writing this article. In addition, documents kept in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Markaz-e Asnad-o Tarikh-e Diplomasi-ye Vezarat-e Omur-e Khareji) and at the Center for Research and Presidency Documents (Markaz-e Pazhuhesh va Asnad-e Riyasat-i Jomhuri) have contributed to this article. Most of the documents related to this field have been studied carefully and the most important among them have been quoted. Thus, we can show clearly how the censorship of the press worked during the first Pahlavi era, especially in relation to its changing aims and intentions.

Among the first measures of the coup d’etat from 1921 was a publication stop for a large part of the press. The military government announced on 17 Esfand 1300 (8 March 1922): “In the future I will break the pens of the opposition, cut their tongues and ... ”2 Although, after a while, these newspapers were allowed to begin publishing again, Reza Shah, as minister of war, could not show restraint in face of critical papers. He ordered the editor of the newspaper Setareh-ye Iran, Hoseyn Saba, to be tied up and whipped on the parade ground for minor criticism. He is also said to have knocked out the teeth of Hoseyn Falsafi, the head of the newspaper Hayat-e Javid, with his fist and locked both him and the paper’s editor up in the garrison police department.3

The newspaper Haqiqat had accused Sardar E‘temad, head of the arsenal, and a number of other officers of embezzlement. In consequence, Reza Khan, then minister of war, asked Mirza Hasan Khan Pirniya (Moshir al-Dowleh), who was the prime minister at that time, to ban Haqiqat, but he refused.4 Consequently, the minister of war threatened the prime minister that if he would not ban the newspaper, he would not be allowed to enter the royal court any more. Eventually Reza Khan’s threats caused Pirniya to resign.5

The Za‘faranlu tribe had assisted the government forces in the suppression of Colonel Mohammad Taqi Khan. When the newspaper Setareh-ye Iran mocked and ridiculed the tribe with satirical comments, the chief editor of the newspaper, Hoseyn Saba, was again arrested and whipped on Reza Khan’s orders. According to ‘Ali Dashti, he “was freed after forty days or more and began to show the whip marks which were visible on his waist and back to visitors at his home.”6 The pressure imposed by the minister of war and his military organization resulted in the outcry of writers: for example, Mohammad Farrokhi Yazdi, editor of the journal Tufan, named the government of Reza Khan “the government of camel-cow-leopard” (hokumat-e shotor, gav-palang) and then sought refuge in the Russian embassy.7

By passing certain bills, the members of the fourth Majles (legislative period from 1 Tir 1300 to 30 Khordad 1302; 22 June 1921 to 20 June 1923) tried to restrict Reza Khan and the military’s obstinacy in relation to the press. On 10 Aban 1301 (2 November 1922) the Majles voted for a supplementary act consisting of two articles that were added to the original press law, which had been passed on 5 Moharram 1326 (18 Bahman 1286/8 February 1908) by the first parliament of the constitutional era.8 In the same year, the High Council of Education (Shura-ye ‘Ali-ye Ma‘aref) was established based on this press law. Thus, from then on all affairs concerning the press were transferred to the High Council of Education. From the month of Dey 1301 until the end of 1304 (December 1922 - February 1926), the High Council of Education issued authorizations for the publication of 267 papers and 77 magazines. From this year onwards the press was also bound to abide by the regulations passed by the council.9

On 11 Aban 1302 (4 November 1923) Reza Khan was appointed prime minister and on the same day Ahmad Shah left Iran for Europe.10 Consequently more than ever the political and military power was centralized in the hands of Reza Khan. The new government passed a decree that any state employee using “the printed press to complain will be tried and punished”.11 As a result of this order, the press was now more isolated than ever. Also in this Iranian year (January 1924), the first head of the Central Police Office (Edareh-ye Koll-e Tashkilat-e Nazmiyeh), Mohammad Dargahi, was appointed to replace the Swedish officer Carl Gustav Westdahl.12 Until 1308 (1929), when he was replaced by General Sadeq Khan Kupal, he was in possession of an immense amount of power, so much so that he “had gained more power than the prime minister”.13 From then on the military played an important role in the censorship of the press and in putting pressure on its chief editors.

The assassination of Mirzadeh ‘Eshqi is one of the most significant events that took place before Reza Shah came to the throne. ‘Eshqi, the editor of the newspaper Qarn-e Bistom (20th century), was a poet with socialist leanings. He had seriously opposed the republican slogans that Reza Khan and his supporters had begun to publicize towards the end of 1302 (March 1924) and the beginning of 1303 (April 1924). He was fearless and inspiring in his writings. For this reason government agents “shot him on Thursday, 12 Tir 1303 (3 July 1924) at his house that was located in the Dowlat quarter, Qotb al-Din Alley, and he died hours later”.14

The murder of ‘Eshqi caused terror among the community of intellectuals in Iran, and since the political and security structures needed by the new regime were not yet fully developed, cries of protest could be heard in the press. Thus the editors of the printed press in opposition to the government reacted and took refuge in the National Consultative Assembly in order to put pressure on the government to find out the identity of ‘Eshqi’s killers.15 Therefore, Mirzadeh ‘Eshqi’s murder marks the beginning of Reza Shah’s 16-year-long reign and of his policies regarding culture and the press.

Although the Pahlavi regime was of a military nature from the beginning, the political, military and security structures necessary for developing a complete military government only took shape gradually. For this reason the censorship of the press in the Reza Shah era extended only step by step until it reached a point where - in the documents available today from that period - the discourse of sceptics of censorship turned into a discourse of servility. The censorship of the press during this era consists of at least three periods. The first period begins with Reza Shah ascending the throne in 1304/ 1925 and ‘Abdolhoseyn Teymurtash becoming the court minister (28 Azar 1304/19 December 1925).16 During this period the Court Ministry (Vezarat-e Darbar) was the basic foundation of press censorship. In the second period, from the removal of Teymurtash from office (3 Dey 1311/24 December 1932) until the establishment of the Office of Guidance in Writing (Edareh-ye Rahnama-ye Nameh-negari), the Central Police Office was responsible for the censorship of the press.17 During the third period, the mutual collaboration between the Office of Guidance in Writing, with ‘Ali Dashti as its director, and the Central Police Office helped to move press censorship along. In Dey 1317 (December to January 1938-39) the Organization for Public Enlightenment (Sazman-e Parvaresh-e Afkar) was established in order to extend censorship and assist the Office of Guidance in Writing.18

During the first period, the censorship of the press gradually intensified and slowly forced the media into submission. Consequently, at the beginning of this period, elements of protest were still evident in the tone of the chief editors. In his letters to Prime Minister Mirza Hasan Mostowfi al-Mamalek, written in the months of Shahrivar and Mehr 1305 (September and October 1926), the editor of the newspaper Mihan, Ahmad Kasma’i, vividly expresses his thoughts on the daily and ever growing pressures of the military, which involved the observation of his home, and he describes the military officials’ behaviour by using the harsh expression “murderous” (jenayat-kari).19 He accused the head of the Central Police Office of sending a policeman to Dushan Tapeh Street to prepare a dossier of false written testimonies from the shopkeepers and residents of this area in order to present a case against him.20 In his third letter to the prime minister, Ahmad Kasma’i requests to emigrate abroad, since despite firm promises to him, the inspectors of the police have not stopped their aggression against him.21

In the first years of this period, the Ministry of the Interior, with the Central Police Office and the bureaus under its control, and the Ministry of Education, Charity and Fine Arts (Vizarat-e Ma‘aref va Owqaf va Sanaye’-e Mostazrafeh) were both responsible for press censorship, but the Ministry of the Interior actually dominated the Ministry of Education. In spite of this, the local newspaper Alborz from Rasht was banned in early spring 1307/1928 by the “Shari‘a supervisor” of the local office of the Ministry of Education in this province (the nazer-e shar‘iyat of the Edareh-ye Ma‘aref of Gilan).22 However, the “Government of Gilan” in its report to the Ministry of the Interior regarded this ban as a personal decision and one that was unacceptable due to “public opinion” in Gilan. Regardless of this, the Gilan Office of Education insisted on banning the Alborz newspaper.23 It can be seen in the documents belonging to this era that even the National Consultative Assembly, the Majles, was called in to litigate over the prohibition of newspapers. In relation to the banning of two publications called Takht-e Jamshid and Daneshpaz- huhan, the people of Estahbanat in Fars issued a petition protesting this ban to the National Consulatative Assembly. Hoseyn Pirniya, the head of the sixth Majles (legislation period from 19 Tir 1305 to 22 Mordad 1307; 10 July 1926 to 13 August 1928), followed their request through both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of the Interior.24

From this year on the Court Ministry directed by ‘Abd al-Hoseyn Teymurtash became the fundamental institution of press censorship, and consequently the sole reference point for the ban of newspapers was the minister of court himself. However, prior to this, in addition to the Court Ministry, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Education were also involved in censorship and the prohibition of printed media. Before the year 1308/1929 the editors of banned publications turned more often to the office of the prime minister than to the Court Ministry. In one example of open disagreement between the

Central Police Office and the Ministry of Education regarding the censorship of the press in Azerbaijan in the summer of 1307/1928, the problem ends in a way that confirms the above hypothesis. The Central Police Office pressured the Ministry of Education “to refrain from granting publication permits to unsuitable people with regard to the printed press in Azerbaijan.” By referring the subject matter to the prime minister for a final decision, the Ministry of Education showed resistance towards the request of the nazmiyeh (the police) and reminded it of its restricted area of authority, as defined by the press law. According to the press law, the Ministry of Education was permitted to examine only two characteristics of an applicant who applied for an authorization to publish a newspaper: one was the applicant’s age; and the second was a report from the Ministry of Justice, stating that “the applicant has not committed a misdemeanour or a crime.” Consequently, the Ministry of Education insisted that it “cannot go beyond the limited power it has been given by the law and if the Ministry of Education should have more to say on this matter, then the press laws would need to be revised and new regulations would have to be passed.”25 It is interesting to note that in this process of mediation between the ministries, the prime minister took the side of the nazmiyeh and added a note in the margin of the letter to the Ministry of Education that “It should be written in reply to the Nazmiyeh ... if the need arises newspapers are to be censored.”26 In a separate letter, the prime minister announces his opinion on the matter to the police: “With regard to the printed press of Azerbaijan, it is advised that when the need arises you ban or censor the press.”27

From 1308/1929 onwards, the Court Ministry’s dominance over the existing system of censorship became complete. In previous years, the normal routine had been that when a newspaper was banned by the governor of a province, he would correspond with the Ministry of the Interior in the capital for the decision to be finalized.28 However, during this period, when a provincial governor had a problem with one or several publications in the area under his control, the editor of the publication that was on the verge of being banned would directly communicate with the minister of the court to prevent a prohibition. Mahmud Jam, the governor of the province of Khorasan and Sistan, had banned the newspaper Aftab-e Sharq (“Sun of the East”) for publishing an article under the headline “The Eighth Round of Legislation”. The governor of Khorasan, who was also the representative of the Ministry of the Interior in this province, in theory would have needed to prepare a proper report on the prohibition of Aftab-e Sharq and to present it to the Ministry of the Interior. However, he refused to do so, and instead he conferred directly with the court minister Teymurtash, presenting his report to him.29

An incident similar to what had happened in Khorasan also took place in Mazandaran. In direct correspondence with the court minister Teymurtash, the governor of Mazandaran asked for permission to take action against the newspaper Tabarestan.30 Here, as well, it is interesting to note that the editor of Tabarestan, called Sadr Ara, turned directly to the Court Ministry in order to clear up any misunderstandings and, of course, to avoid the imminent ban of his paper.31

The influence of the Court Ministry had been extended enormously and it was now involved in so many aspects of press censorship that most people active in the media quite naturally held the belief that everything ultimately depended on the exclusive opinion and decision of the court minister. Thus, Amir Jalil Mozhdehi, the editor of the newspaper Ayineh-ye Iran, as a last resort directly asked Teymurtash for help in order to find a solution and have the ban on his newspaper lifted. In a pleading tone and testifying to his own impotence his petition is a testimony to the terror and fear that existed among the press and was created by the censorship system with the court minister as its leader: “The best and most appropriate source for complaint is indeed the highest rank at the Royal Court and this most noble personality [‘Abdolhoseyn Teymurtash] as today he is the sole supporter of the press and it would be an honour to call him the father of the press”.32

Another banned newspaper was the Ruznameh-ye Eqdam, in 1927. Once its chief editor, the famous journalist and author ‘Abbas Khalili (1895-1971), had received permission from Teymurtash to return from his exile in Iraq, he praised him in a way imaginable only by those kept in captivity: “From now on I will strive to nurture my spirit so that when I come to thank this great being for his kindness, my thanksgiving would have arisen from a pure soul.”33 ‘Abbas Khalili is an example of those who during that era had been debased as human beings and whose identity was formed by absolutist political power.

In the period when the Court Ministry ruled supreme over all other institutions in the realm of press censorship, editors of newspapers were also made to sign a “letter of commitment” (ta ‘ahhod-nameh) prepared by Teymurtash, which made them directly responsible and accountable to him for all the material printed in their respective papers. Abolqasem E‘tesamzadeh, the editor of the newspaper Setareh-ye Jahan, who was unhappy with the constant interference of the police with regard to press censorship, sent a letter of complaint to the court minister in which he asked which manner of censorship the press was supposed to follow: should they proceed according to the “letter of commitment” they had signed with the Court Ministry or according to the daily expectations of the police?34

The minute regulations for the censorship of the press as defined by the Court Ministry and as implemented by the Central Police Office were so strict and frustrating that they left little room for journalistic activity, as can be easily seen in the following examples:

  • 1 A warning to all distribution managers: they are never to publish newspapers in the morning or afternoon without the knowledge, warning or permission of the branch officials.
  • 2 A warning to all printing houses: they must retain their printed newspapers until granted permission for distribution by the nazmiyeh.

3 A warning to all printing houses, editors and type-setting houses: no piece of news or article shall be type-set without the signature of the censorship official and if it is urgent it shall be brought to the local branch for permission.35

The Central Police Office implemented censorship regulations with such brutality that certain members of the press were unable to handle this pressure. General Mohammad Hoseyn Ayrom, the supreme head of the naz- miyeh, closed down the newspaper Nasim-e Shomal for the stated reason that its editor had contracted “mental illnesses”. The editor’s complaint not only had no substantial effect, but on the contrary, the verdict of the authorities over him was confirmed.36 Mohammad Javad Hushmand, the editor of Sa‘adat-e Bashar (“Happiness of Mankind”) wrote a letter dated 3 Shahrivar 1311/25 August 1932 to Teymurtash, complaining about General Ayrom and the harsh treatment of the police. He announced that if this “oppression and encroachment was not stopped” he would set fire to himself in public using oil and gasoline.37

The Iranian government was very sensitive about reactions abroad to any news about Iran’s internal affairs. Whenever a foreign publication published a piece on the government’s internal policies in a positive tone, not only would it cause delight among Iran’s politicians, but newspapers published abroad would also receive money as a direct reward. The Iranian consul general in India, Hasan Pirnazar, informed Teymurtash of his meeting with the editor of the journal Hablolmatin, printed in Calcutta. In this personal meeting with the editor and in the course of long discussions the Iranian consul persuaded him and made him promise “not to write on matters of importance without first hearing the opinion of his excellency [Teymurtash] and to be in total submission to his Majesty’s sacred will.” Further on he explained: “With this in mind I cannot imagine that your excellency should have any more worries, and it has also been arranged that when there is a command to be given, or if there is something to be done by the newspaper Hablolmatin or written to me in secret or ... , the representative of the editor should be summoned and given the orders so that they can be acted upon.”38

Hasan Pirnazar also informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that as the journal Sar Faraz, the organ of the Indian Shi‘is published in Lucknow, provides a very positive view of the Iranian government, “an annual allowance of at least 500 Rupees should be approved and given to them. After the closure of Hablolmatin no other newspaper in India will be interested to write about matters related to the Iranian government, thus it is my firm belief that urgent special attention to this matter would prove useful.”39

While newspapers in opposition to the policies of the Iranian government, even those outside the country, were not safe from the government’s constant pressure and prosecution, newspapers such as Sar Faraz received financial support. If we compare this stance with Iran’s opposition to the Persian-language journal Peykar, published in Berlin, we will be surprised to see that Iran used all its diplomatic power not only to prevent the publication of Peykar, but also to have those in charge prosecuted.40

Among the censorship’s special sensitivities was the emerging Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine. The Eqdam newspaper had published a number of articles in opposition to the territorial expansion of Jewish settlers in the land of Palestine. This position was opposed strongly by the Court Ministry since according to the opinion of Teymurtash “publishing articles of this kind will only result in hostility and produce certain reactions which are in opposition with the welfare of the country and in defiance of the government’s politics. It is necessary for the appropriate steps to be taken in order to prevent the publication of such articles and provocations on both sides.”41 After Teymurtash had issued this guideline, it was implemented by the Central Police Office, and General Dargahi reported to the Court Ministry on 9 Mehr 1308/1 October 1929: “With regard to the prevention of publication of articles related to the disputes in Palestine which convey anti-Jewish and pro-Arab sentiments, all newspaper editors have been warned not to prepare any articles on Palestinian affairs or to express opinions.”42 The first major period in press censorship during the Reza Shah era ends with the dismissal of Teymurtash from his post on 3 Dey 1311/24 December 1932. He was murdered in prison on 11 Mehr 1312/3 October 1933.43

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