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Iran Shuts Down Newspaper Over Cartoon

by Nazila Fathi, The New York Times, May 23, 2006

When was the last time the Daily News was shut down and its editor jailed for mocking Tamils? And imagine using only teargas against minority demonstrators instead of bullets!

Iran Shuts Down Newspaper Over Cartoon

Thousands of ethnic Azeris demonstrated in the northwestern city of Tabriz

TEHRAN, May 23 — The government shut down one of its official newspapers on Tuesday for publishing a cartoon that mocked Iran's Azeri minority and led to riots in northwestern cities.

The government Press Supervisory Board shut down the daily newspaper Iran because the cartoon was "divisive and provocative," state television reported. The newspaper is published by the official IRNA news agency and is among the country's most popular and influential newspapers.

The cartoon, published Friday, showed a boy repeating the Persian word for cockroach in different ways, while a cockroach in front of the boy asked "What?" in Turkish Azeri.

It was drawn by a well-known cartoonist, Mana Neyestani, who was arrested Tuesday. The newspaper's editor in chief, Mehrdad Qasemfar, was also arrested, and both were sent to Evin prison to await trial, Tehran's chief prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, told state television on Tuesday.

State television said the newspaper had been shut down indefinitely, but reporters at other Iranian newspapers said the journalists at Iran planned to go back to work on Wednesday because they did not expect it to be closed for long. The paper's publication was suspended for a day five years ago under President Mohammad Khatami, at a time when the judiciary was cracking down on reformist newspapers.

The cartoon set off some of the worst ethnic protests in northwestern Iran since the revolution in 1979. That part of the country is where a majority of Azeri Turks live, and students there staged demonstrations in Ardebil, Zanjan, Tabriz, Orumieh and several smaller cities. The protests reached their height on Tuesday, and while there were no reports of injuries, the main bazaars in Tabriz and Orumieh were closed early this week.

The semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency reported that thousands protested in downtown Tabriz on Monday and pelted the governor's office with stones. After several hours, the police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, it said. Some 54 people were arrested, the Iranian Student News Agency reported.

The minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Mohammad Hussein Saffar-Harandi, appeared on television on Monday to apologize for the cartoon. But an Azeri member of Parliament, Eshrat Shaeq, said the apology came too late, adding that she was collecting signatures to impeach the minister.

Other ethnic minorities, including Arabs, Kurds and Baluchis, have staged protests in the past year as political dissent in the nation has risen.

Hamidreza Jalaipour, a professor of sociology at Tehran University, said the cartoon was only an excuse for the protests.

"The cartoon could not have been the only reason for the protests," he said. "People are unhappy with political and social conditions.

"The intellectuals have been alienated, and the new management is not capable of dealing with such circumstances," he added, referring to the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took office last August.

Azeri Turks make up a quarter of Iran's population. Jokes about Turks, Jews and other minorities are common, but they are rarely published in official media.

Students held demonstrations at four major universities in Tehran on Tuesday, but each protest was for a different reason.

Demonstrations are expected to continue Wednesday.

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