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Censoring the Dead

Even after her death, it seems the attacks on Zahra Kazemi will not end. It was only two months ago that Canadians were stunned by new evidence that the Montreal photojournalist was tortured to death while in Iranian custody. Kazemi was arrested in June 2003 while taking photographs outside of a prison in Iran, the country of her birth. To punish her for this transgression, Kazemi’s captors raped and beat her, according to a doctor who fled Iran to tell the story.

Close to two years later, there are new attempts to cover Kazemi’s lens, to prevent her photographs from reaching public eyes – only now the censorship is happening inside her adopted country of Canada. Last week Montreal’s Cote St. Luc Library removed five of Kazemi’s photographs from display after Jewish patrons complained of alleged “pro-Palestinian bias”; they left up the rest of the exhibition, which had already been displayed in Paris. Kazemi’s son, Stephan Hachemi, called the removal of the Palestinian photographs “a violation of my mother’s spirit” and rightly demanded that the library show the entire exhibit or nothing at all. So the library took down the entire show.

This made-in-Canada censorship comes as the Iranian government continues to stonewall any attempts to bring Kazemi’s murderers to justice. After refusing to return her body to her son, Iran has acquitted three intelligence officials accused in her death, and most recently, mocked Canada’s calls for an international inquiry. For its part, the Canadian government has been accused by Kazemi’s family of “begging, not insisting” that the Iranian government be held to account for her death.

There is no comparison between the decision to remove Kazemi’s photographs in Montreal and the kind of brutal censorship that lead to her death in an Iranian prison. And yet the decision to take down the photographs, for fear that they might “offend” is all the more obscene because of how Kazemi died: she was killed precisely for her commitment to bear witness to human suffering, even when powerful forces want no witnesses to their brutality. She brought that commitment to countries across Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, including Iran and Israeli-occupied Palestine.

All too often, Canadian morality is laced with hypocrisy. We are outraged by what happened to Kazemi in Iran, or to Maher Arar in Syria, yet continue to deport refugees to countries where they face torture, including Algeria, Syria, Lebanon — and yes, even Iran. Last year, 43 Iranian refugee claimants were deported from British Columbia alone, a four-fold increase from 1999.

The decision to take down photographs thought to be “too sympathetic” to the Palestinian cause is also part of a disturbing pattern to silence opposition to the expansionist Israeli occupation of the Occupied Territories, now in its 38th year. Two summers ago, CanWest Global, Canada’s largest media conglomerate, went so far as to produce a heavily-promoted full-length documentary that compared pro-Palestinian students at Montreal’s Concordia University to Nazis. In September, the company’s newspaper chain was admonished by the Reuters news agency for running its stories with ideological alterations to the original text. And rarely in the media do we hear the many anti-occupation voices that challenge the delusional consensus that Palestinians are to blame for their own misery.

But it’s not just Palestinian resistance that is distorted or ignored: so too are Palestinians themselves, their faces, their lives. And it was this de-humanizing void that Kazemi was trying to fill with her work. She “illustrated the daily life of Palestinians and the problems they faced as they sought to preserve their land and their identity” in the face of “exodus, poverty, humiliation, suffering, and the ravages of war,” according to the caption that accompanied the photo exhibition. And this is indeed a threatening act: Simple images that capture the human consequences of occupation are a direct challenge to those who have found ways to seal themselves off to a people’s collective suffering.

In the words of her son, Zhara Kazemi had the courage “to have shown the unshowable, to have shown the truth.” In her death, we dishonour her memory and legacy by allowing her photographs to be suppressed, images that are an expression of the very courage and humanity that cost this brave journalist her life.

It’s not too late to make things right. Kazemi’s work must be immediately remounted, but on a much larger scale. It would be a particularly powerful gesture if members of the Canadian Jewish community, who are well known supporters of the arts, stepped forward to help hang Kazemi’s photographs, all of them, on the walls of a major Canadian museum.

This would demonstrate that Canadians are capable not only of condemning censorship when it happens in far off countries, but are committed to defending the principles of freedom of expression and a genuine diversity of views and opinion here at home.

It would be a fitting, if modest, way to pay our respects to a Canadian hero who was murdered because she believed that these ideas are more than theoretical.

Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo and Fences and Windows. Aaron Maté is a Montreal-based journalist and researcher. A shorter version of this article appeared in the Globe and Mail on June 15 2005.

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