Stifling dissent

A six-year jail term and a ban on film-making for 20 years for the celebrated film director Jafar Panahi is the latest act of suppression of personal freedom to emerge out of Iran. The theocratic leadership of the country has never been tolerant of dissidence and non-conformity. Those who strayed from the Islamic code of conduct, as interpreted by the mullahs, have invited the harshest punishment. The recent death sentence, to be carried out by stoning, of Sakineh Astiani, for alleged adultery had invited international attention. The sentence has now been stayed. But there are thousands of others who have been subjected to the harshest methods of persecution. A number of journalists and others were also imprisoned recently. The regime has sometimes been practical enough to moderate its punishment, but on the whole repression of even common freedoms has been the norm.

An artist’s life is specially difficult in such an environment.   Panahi is not an ordinary artist either. He had made a mark internationally even with his first film in 1995, has won honours in festivals including Cannes and has been acknowledged as one of the leaders of Iranian and world cinema. But his films had all been banned in the country, mainly because he is among the critics of the Islamist regime. The immediate provocation for his prosecution and punishment was a film he was making on the Green movement. But the charges were never made clear, except that he and another filmmaker, who too was punished, worked against the system.

All good art is basically subversive and disrespectful of authority. Panahi’s films, which took a critical look at Iranian society and questioned dogmas and religiously ordained norms and practices, could only have been seen as a threat by the authoritarian system. He has also portrayed the degraded position of women in the society. There is an environment of heightened paranoia and intolerance in Iran after the eruption of mass protests in the wake of the controversial 2008 presidential elections. Panahi had to pay with his freedom and career for being true to his conscience and convictions and for his courage. It is unlikely that the worldwide campaign for his release will have any impact on the regime, especially because he is known as a supporter of opposition leader Hossein Mousavi.

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