State paper closed, editor and cartoonist charged

New York, May 23, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by the closure today of an Iranian state newspaper, and the arrest of its editor-in-chief and a cartoonist who published a cartoon that sparked riots by ethnic Azeris in the northwestern city of Tabriz.

Tehran’s chief prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, ordered the arrest of Mehrdad Qasemfar, editor-in-chief of Iran Friday, the local weekend edition of the official state newspaper Iran, and Mana Neyestani, the paper’s cartoonist. They were charged with insulting the Azeri ethnic minority and transferred to the capital’s Evin prison for further investigation, according to CPJ sources. Gholamhossein Eslamifard, the publisher of the newspaper, has been summoned to court.

The Press Supervisory Board at the Press and Information Department of the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry ordered the closure of Iran until further notice on charges of publishing provocative materials and fomenting discord under Article 12 of the Press Law, according to Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

On May 12, the newspaper ran a cartoon in which a boy repeated the Persian word for cockroach in several ways while the uncomprehending bug in front of him says “What?” in Azeri, Reuters reported. Azeris, a Turkic ethnic group, make up about 25 percent of Iran’s 70 million people.

Protests broke out after the publication and gained momentum this week. Protesters set fire May 21 to Iran’s local office in the city of Orumiyeh, where Azeris make up the majority, media reported. Azeris pelted government buildings and security forces with stones in Tabriz, injuring several policemen, according to news reports. Police dispersed the crowds with tear gas and arrested several dozen rioters.

The newspaper published a formal apology on its front page for three days last week and fired the editor-in-chief of Iran Friday and the cartoonist, who is himself an Azeri, according to CPJ sources. Neyestani’s relatives told Reuters that Neyestani’s cartoon had not intended to insult.

“While we understand that the publication of this cartoon has offended many people, we believe there is no justification to deprive these journalists of their liberty,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We call on Iranian authorities to release them at once.”