Media Censorship: A Case Study of the Shargh Daily

There are harsh consequences for media outlets that choose to cover events relating to Iran’s LGBT community, even in a fleeting fashion.

Shargh Daily, a leading Iranian newspaper closely aligned with the country’s reformists, was suspended for publishing an interview, titled, “Feminine Language,” which featured Saghi Ghahraman, an expatriate Iranian poet who lives in Canada.

On Monday, August 7, 2007, the Press Oversight Committee indefinitely suspended the newspaper, a major news agency with at least two-hundred personnel.

Mohammad Parvizi, head of the domestic print media division of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, said, “Shargh Daily was suspended pursuant to the press law…due to [publishing] an interview with a counter-revolutionary element and a promoter of faggotry, who has a reputation of openly engaging in this kind of debauchery, and who disclosed her heart’s desires in this interview.”

In the two days between the publication of the interview and the subsequent suspension, the management of Shargh Daily twice published a note of apology on the paper’s front page, explaining, “We had no knowledge of the background of [Saghi Ghahraman] and [the newspaper] will be more careful in the future.” Shargh Daily also immediately removed the interview from its website.

According to separate accounts from Ms. Ghahraman, the interviewer, and Shargh Daily’s managing director, there was no mention of homoeroticism, homosexuality, or the sexual orientation of Ms. Ghahraman—she is bisexual—in the pages of Shargh Daily.

In the interview, there was also no mention that Ms. Ghahraman is a founding member of the Toronto-based Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), an NGO promoting and defending the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Iranians living in Iran or as refugees abroad. There was also no mention that Ghahraman was a member of the persecuted communist party in the early days of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and had to flee Iran in 1983 for fear of her safety.

Shargh Daily decision to print the interview was, however, enough fodder for political conservatives in Iran to berate the reformists.

Kayhan Daily, a morning newspaper headed by the representative of the Supreme Leader of Iran, found the published apologies of Shargh Daily unacceptable, saying, “Considering the personality of the interviewer and the [rest of the] journalists of this newspaper, media observers believe that Shargh Daily interviewed this ham-jens-baz aware of her porno-personality, sick sexual identity, and dissident political views.”

Fars News Agency, which is close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, wrote a piece criticizing Shargh Daily, and exposing the “moral corruption” and the “ungodly agenda” of Ms. Ghahraman.

The organization also published a separate piece consisting of readers’ comments reacting to the original Fars News report. Many commentators criticized Fars News for “publicizing” Ms. Ghahraman and her “disgraceful” life by covering the reasons behind the suspension of Shargh Daily.

Fars News subsequently apologized several times for revealing Ms. Ghahraman’s background and her opinions on same-sex desires.

While, in the aftermath of these events, some in the Iranian blogosphere condemned the lack of freedom of expression, there were many that blamed the newspaper’s management for giving conservatives a convenient excuse to ban their beloved newspaper. At the time, Shargh Daily was one of the few remaining voices in the media for reformists.

Cheraq, a magazine for Iranian LGBTQ, of which Ms. Ghahraman was the editor, published a piece in September 2007 that was strongly critical of the reactions of Iranian intellectuals, especially Shargh Daily’s management and journalists.

The piece admonished them for caving into criticism from the Iranian government, and its denunciation of Ms. Ghahraman’s personal life and human rights activism.

Shargh Daily was allowed to publish again on April 11, 2010, after a three-year ban.

Conclusion

It is hard to imagine how LGBT issues can be discussed in the Iranian public sphere in a meaningful manner when simply mentioning the name of a non-heterosexual person in a newspaper can be construed as a criminal offense.

When the most powerful person in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, uses the word ham-jens-baz’i in  a public speech, what can be expected from likes of Larijani or outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Even former reformist President Mohammad Khatami justified capital punishment for sodomy in Iran in a speech at Harvard University hypocritically called, “The Ethics of Tolerance.”

One has to wonder what the future holds for Iranian queers, other than more misery.

 

*Acknowledgement: I would like to gratefully thank Dominic Bocci for his kind review, patience and constructive comments.