Authorities close prominent critical daily and a monthly

New York, September 11, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalist condemns the closure of Iran’s most prominent critical newspaper today for failing to remove an executive accused of publishing blasphemous articles and insulting officials.

Authorities shuttered the daily Sharq saying it had not replaced managing director, Mohammad Rahmanian, as ordered in a letter on August 10, according to Mashallah
Shamsolvaezin, spokesman for the Iranian Committee for the Defense of Freedom of the Press.

“There can be no press freedom in a country in which government agencies hire and fire editors,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said.

The Press Supervisory Board run by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance said Sharqhad been given one month to replace Rahmanian, but after the deadline ran out on Sunday, he remained at his post. The board said in a statement that “because of 70 cases of violations, including insulting officials, religious and national figures, publishing blasphemous articles and also articles creating discord … the board demanded the replacement,” Reuters reported.

The Board also criticized a cartoon published Thursday, which depicted a chessboard lying between a horse and a donkey with a halo of light around its head. Some opposition Web sites have quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying that he was protected by a divine circle of light during his United Nations assembly speech in New York last year, Reuters added. The president’s office strongly denied he had said such a thing.

The newspaper angered authorities by criticizing the rulings of the Supreme National Security Council, which is in charge of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the West, and the cartoon was seen as another example of the paper’s undermining the council, Shamsolvaezin told CPJ.

Reuters reported that Rahmanian asked on Sunday for a two-month extension to find a successor and accordingly was not in violation of the deadline. He intends to appeal the order, the agency said. But Shamsolvaezin said the ban appeared permanent.
Sharq had come under pressure from the judiciary because of its editorial line, according to Shamsolvaezin. Its closure was a clear message intended to silence critics and other reformist papers, he added.

Shamsolvaezin said the Board today also ordered the political monthly Nameh closed for blasphemy and insulting religious figures. The paper’s editor, Majid Tavallaei, said the paper was closed for publishing a poem by dissident female poet Simin Behbahani, The Associated Press reported.

“The closure of these two publications is further evidence of the Iranian authorities’ determination to silence dissenting voices and stifle media freedom,” Simon said. “We call upon the authorities to rescind the closure orders.”

Also today, authorities lifted a ban on the state newspaper Iran, the Iranian Committee for the Defense of Freedom of the Press added. The paper will publish under a new team of managers and journalists and with a new design, according to Shamsolvaezin and local news reports.

The daily was banned on May 23 after it published a cartoon that sparked riots by ethnic Azeris in the northwestern city of Tabriz. Gholamhossein Eslamifard, Iran’s managing director, was acquitted in August of insulting the country’s Azeri minority. But Mehrdad Ghasemfar, editor-in-chief of Iran Friday, Iran’s local weekend edition, and Mana Neyestani, that paper’s cartoonist, were charged with insulting the Azeris and placed in Tehran’s Evin Prison on May 23, according to CPJ sources.

Since 2000, Iranian courts have closed more than 100 publications, most of which were pro-reform. In August, the government urged the judiciary to clamp down on dailies that spread “lies.”