Friday, January 10, 2014

Iranian President Speaks Out on Artistic Freedom

Hassan Rouhani at his first press conference as Iran’s President-Elect on June 17, 2013, Tehran, Iran.

During his campaign to become Iran’s president this past Spring, Hassan Rouhani often emphasized the importance of a more open society, one that encourages freedom of expression and creativity and relies less on censorship.

In a presidential debate on June 5, 2013, broadcast live on state television, Rouhani decried government restrictions and limitations on social freedoms. ”Let people have more freedom,” Rouhani said, “Let’s not intervene so much in their lives. Cultural issues must be solved through culture itself.” “The solution to the country’s cultural problems is to minimize the government’s interference and allow guild associations and experts to run their own affairs,” he added. Rouhani’s web-savvy campaign staff, who were live-tweeting the debate, quickly posted this:
Rouhani said that Iran’s “cultural atmosphere ” and “innovation” should be cultivated and safe from scrutiny, so that “new ideas to turn art into cultural products.”

A month later, after Rouhani had been elected president, he was still giving voice to this campaign promise. ”In the age of digital revolution, one cannot live or govern in a quarantine,” he said in an interview with a popular Iranian youth magazine in which he also pledged to reduce “censorship of artistic and cultural works.” Rouhani said “the state – instead of interfering in the affairs of artists and cultural figures – should provide them with security,” reported the Guardian.

“We should not tighten the red lines all the time, we should show that censorship is not our goal,” he said.
While optimism in the Iranian public has been understandably guarded, Iranian visual artists have become more outspoken in their desire to see censorship curbed. According to media outlet Radio Zamaneh, a September 2013 statement issued by a group of artists expressed “hope that the new government will put an end to past policies and invite artists and experts to plan and lead the country’s art and culture sector” and, among other demands, asked the new administration to allow artists ”to display their artwork without restriction or censorship, as long as the pieces made public do not insult others or violate their freedom.”

While there have been both positive and negative developments in the intervening months, on Wednesday evening, January 8, 2014, President Rouhani attended an assembly of members of arts and cultural associations at Tehran’s famed Vahdat Hall (former home to Iran’s currenlty defunct National Symphony Orchestra and site of a recent performance of a new Persian version of The Sound of Music).

Invited by prominent members of six theater, music, poetry, cinema and calligraphy guilds, Rouhani listened to the artists’ views on, as the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) put it, the “state of affairs and harmonizing the activities of men of pen and arts with the legal code.”

Rouhani, joined at the gathering by Culture Minister Ali Jannati, Presidential Advisor on Cultural Affairs Hessameddin Ashena and presidential aide Hossein Fereidoun, was introduced to the audience by the head of Tehran’s City Council Ahmad Masjed-Jamei.

“Artists are not a threat, and art without freedom is meaningless,” Rouhani told the crowd. “Creativity becomes possible only in the shelter of liberty.”

He added, “We should reach out to those artists who have been isolated in the past few years, getting them more involved in society and preventing censorship.”

Jannati, who had recently been summoned by conservative members of the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, and reprimanded for his administration’s public promotion of liberal values and “cultural openness,” also spoke,seconding Rouhani’s pledge and “emphasized the need to reduce the supervision of cultural affairs and allow freedom of action for the private sector in this field.”

Reacting to the parliamentary procedure – known informally in football-crazy Iran as a “yellow card” when ministers are dissatisfied with witness testimony – Rouhani told the artists, musicians and writers at Vahdat Hall, “We are proud of peoples such as Jannati who defend freedom,” adding, “Some officials have obviously not heard the people’s voice in the election. I promise the people to stop extremism in Iran,” even if that meant incurring future “yellow cards.”

As usual, Rouhani’s social media team tweeted the president’s best sound bites of the night:

It is clear that Rouhani gained substantial political capital domestically upon inking an interim nuclear deal with six world powers in late November. The question remains whether this will provide enough space for him to successfully sideline conservative spoilers and follow through on the rest of his campaign promises to the Iranian people and his new administration’s ambitious agenda.


Originally posted at Muftah.


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