Authorities Target Independent Film Association

House of Cinema Logo

(11 January 2012) The Iranian Judiciary should withdraw the Ministry of Culture order to shut down House of Cinema, the country’s leading independent film association, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said today. Authorities should end the unlawful attacks on independent civil society organizations and on freedom of expression and association, the Campaign added.

“The attempt to shut down the Iranian House of Cinema shows that the authorities do not hesitate to use any means necessary to bring associations in line,” said Campaign spokesperson Hadi Ghaemi. “The Iranian government systematically goes after independent associations whose work does not necessarily follow the State’s narrative.”

“If the Judiciary wants to show respect for freedom of association and the law it will reject the effort to close House of Cinema,” Ghaemi added.

In recent years, Iranian authorities have been targeting major independent organizations, several of which have been suppressed or disbanded by the government. Since 2008, for example, authorities have shut down Defenders of Human Rights Centre, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi; the Association of Iranian Journalists; and Daftar-e Tahkim, a leading pro-democracy student union; as well as dozens of other civil society organizations.

On 3 January 2012, Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) sent the Iranian House of Cinema a letter ordering them to cease operations within 48 hours. This order came despite the fact that a judicial hearing to resolve the outstanding dispute between the ministry and the association is scheduled for today, 11 January.

House of Cinema is the largest professional film association in Iran with over 5,000 members. Acting as an umbrella organization of different motion picture guilds, House of Cinema aims to protect the financial interests, job security, and rights of its membership and to provide professional training for individuals working in the Iranian film industry.

Members of the association, who chose to speak anonymously, told the Campaign that they were shocked by the MCIG’s latest decision to close the House of Cinema given the court hearing was just a week away.

The ministry alleged that the association had not followed the required legal process for establishing a cultural institution and was thus not legally authorized and was operating without a license.

“House of Cinema is registered as a non-governmental organization. Thus, it can only be dissolved by a judicial ruling or by a decision from its general assembly,” Mohammad-Mehdi Asgarpur, House of Cinema Board Member, told the news website Nasimonline.ir.

The association’s lawyer, Jamal Khandan, told the official Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA), “The activities of House of Cinema are authorized…. [It] is registered with the Cooperate Registration Bureau, which is under the Judiciary.” House of Cinema told ISNA that the registration was formally approved by the MICG on August 1994.

MCIG also accused House of Cinema of “other crimes” but did not name these crimes.

On 4 January, Minister of Culture and Islamic Affairs Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini explained to state television, “This is not just a legal issue; religious people in our society have questioned and objected to things that have been happening in [House of Cinema’s] recent festivals. This shows these festivals are not only professional but also political.”

“The Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance has made it very clear that the legal and procedural issues are just a pretext for attacking the House of Cinema’s independence and suppressing the artistic freedom of its members,” said Ghaemi.

Jamal Khandan pointed out to ISNA that prior to the current dispute, “the Minister of Culture’s officials have repeatedly shown approval for [House of Cinema’s] operation both before and after its creation.”

House of Cinema has been in operation for over 20 years. Formed in 1989, it was temporarily under the supervision of a MCIG-appointed board, and formally registered in 1993.

This latest clash is part of a three-year-old dispute between the MCIG and House of Cinema over the association’s independence and legal formation. The government continues to reject a charter ratified in 2008 by the membership of House of Cinema and is demanding input over the make-up of the board of directors.

On 2 January 2012 Javad Aria Manesh, member of the Parliament’s cultural commission, said that if accepted by the government, “House of Cinema’s charter would alter the association from a promoter of Islamic culture and art to a secular institution.”

Four smaller motion picture associations—of editors, documentary producers, cinematographers, and score composers—met with MCIG’s Deputy Supervisor of Film on 26 December 2011 to resolve the standoff. Frustrated by the results of the meeting, the associations said they would not participate in the annual state-organized Fajr International Film Festival unless House of Cinema’s legal problems were resolved and the case against it dismissed.

In response, the pro-government newspaper Kayhan claimed that a faction within House of Cinema was launching a politically motivated boycott. Hardline website Rajanews claimed the House of Cinema is a mouthpiece of BBC Persian and that it was trying to undermine the Fajr film festival, which is held in commemoration of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

MCIG has been unhappy with House of Cinema for running its own annual film festival, which competes with Fajr film festival.

The attacks on House of Cinema have taken place in the context of increasing government displeasure with the work of Iran’s independent film community and some of the films produced by House of Cinema’s membership, which often challenge Iranian social norms and address socioeconomic, ethnic, and gender issues.

On 15 October 2011 a Tehran appeals court sentenced acclaimed filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi to one and six years in prison, respectively, for producing a film about Iran’s pro-democratic Green Movement and the post-election unrest. In response, House of Cinema’s board advocated on behalf of the filmmakers, and the board’s chairman implied publicly that the detentions were politically motivated.

House of Cinema also came out in support of seven documentary filmmakers whom authorities detained for weeks in September 2011, accused of national security crimes because they had licensed their works to BBC Persian. They were released a few weeks later, never having been tried for their alleged crimes.

“Iranian authorities are engaged in assault on free association,” said Ghaemi. “Sadly, no independent guild or NGO seems safe.”