What is the biggest challenge facing freedom of expression in the world today?

by a young, Iranian, female, undergraduate student*

The oxygen to Tyranny’s survival, and by implication the biggest hindrance to freedom of expression, has a name Tars. He is Authority’s wingman, his most effective and reliable agent. If ever overcome it is only briefly, for his masters swiftly guarantee his reinstatement through one brutal reminder to the dissenters of who is boss. Now in a place like this, Tars is omnipresent. He is there lurking when she chats to the taxi driver on her way home from the bazaar; when she relays the details of last night’s raiding of Flat 4 to her mother-in-law, when her daughter types ‘facebook’ into the internet filter and posts a mobile video of that very raid, when her niece across the pond sees this video and starts to express her disgust in a 140 character tweet. He stands there smugly, legs crossed, cigar in hand, leaning on the passport control booth at Imam Khomeini Airport, observing his new recruits crossing into his all-consuming control. All men are born free and equal, until they become minions to their own ‘tars’ their own fear.

A call for freedom of expression in Iran.

The employment of repressive tools, whether in the form of constraints on social networking sites, censorship of the press, or the secret police, are all in some way or another veiled as the Islamic Republic’s religious duties. After all, they help crush anti-government (by default, anti-Islam) sentiment. This notion is then sold to the masses; some buy it, many don’t and yet the silence is left unbroken. Whether in the Ancien Regime, whereby the Bourbon dynasty claimed to rule by divine right, or when Mohammad Reza Shah and Tsar Alexander II used their escape from attempts on their lives as evidence that they reigned, and indeed ruled, under God’s protecting hand; regimes have long justified totalitarian rule under the guise of religious legitimacy. In such instances, much like in the case of the 34-year-old Islamic Republic, questioning the ruling power was deemed synonymous with challenging God’s will. The freedom to express critical opinions of government was thus presented as unjustified and condemnable. Perhaps the fact that these assassination attempts were even carried out, however, is telling of what is required to achieve freedom of expression an emergence from the idle state of fear. Some fears are undoubtedly legitimate, others irrational. That’s not to say an erratic act like those of the over-ambitious wannabe assassins is the prime recipe for the freedom of expression: such radicalism drove any hope of reform underground and led to intensified repression. But were they not acts of expression in themselves? Acts rooted in a defiance to the status quo of unquestioned obedience, stemming from the abandonment of the fear factor.

Barriers to freedom of expression exist in multiple forms. Reminders that obtaining it is an intangible dream permeate everyday life. When she struggles to readjust her headscarf blowing in the wind as she loads her groceries into the back of the taxi. When he turns on the telly to catch up on the world news and is instead faced with a rainbow coloured screen which occasionally allows for the news reporter’s 23 seconds of fame. But it is the threat of what openly declaring her want for change would mean for her career, and more importantly for her children. With a repressed and censored media, the word of mouth culture plays its role in transmitting the stories of her liberal father-in-law’s cousin’s husband’s time in prison to her gardener’s wife’s sister. She has decided it is not worth the hassle. Occasionally, enough people decide to make a stand but it takes no more than one act of terror to occur before their very eyes to leave each individual member of that defiant mass to scuttle back home and continue watching the day’s news, in which the economy is on its way up and the nation is combating its pollution problems. That night the city resonates with melancholy, as cries of ‘God is great’ echo throughout. They stand at their windows, in their gardens or on their rooftops using the government’s own weapon against it expressing discontent through religious terms and thus effectively evading condemnation. The day’s events had reminded them that a more active form of protest was ‘just not worth it’. ‘Remember who we are dealing with. These are the revolutionaries who experienced the atrocities of the Shah’s secret police, the pulling of the finger nails, the electric chairs they have learnt from the best.’ And thus follows the restoration of fear and hopelessness. The by-products of repression in all its forms.

As her niece arrives in Tehran she walks through passport control convinced that despite her use of a pseudonym, her tweet about the raid will have been traced back to her and she will suffer severe consequences. Tars follows as they walk on through to baggage reclaim, casually distributing strait-jackets of compliance to the new arrivals. ‘Get ’em on’, he says.

This article was written by a young, Iranian, female, undergraduate student, who has chosen to remain anonymous. The illustration is a biro pen drawing made by the author for the Freedom House art competition earlier this year. The face is in the shape of Iran, with the colours reflecting those of the flag and the nose subtly mimicing the symbol at the flag’s centre. The unravelled thread of the lips reads ‘freedom’. The drawing was shortlisted in the top 30 entries and displayed at the organisation’s exhibition in Washington DC.

Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.


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