Cartoon Brings Iran Media Crackdown
An Iranian newspaper's not-so-veiled reference to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's infamous "halo" comment after an appearance before the United Nations General Assembly last year seems to have been the last straw for the government, which shut down the reformist publication Tuesday.
The offense of the national daily Sharq was "publishing articles insulting to religious, political and national figures and fomenting discord in violation of orders of the Supreme National Security Council," according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
But the country's bloggers and online media say a cartoon published last week, titled "The Other Rules of the Game," precipitated the crackdown.
"Most Iranian political analysts, including some of the journalists at the paper said the most important thing that the Government did not like was a cartoon ... showing a chess board where a horse and a donkey, with a halo of light around its head are debating the regime's handling of nuclear issue with the West," according to the Paris-based Iran Press Service. "Though cartoonists say the halo is not a halo, but an effect to separate the animals heads, it seems that the censors at the Iranian judiciary have made a rapprochement between the donkey of the cartoon with President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nezhad's talks last year..."
The halo, writes Persian blogger LadySun, is seen by the government censors as an allusion to his Ahmadinejad's much-reported and mocked comment that he felt a heavenly beam of light embracing him during a speech at the United Nations last year. Ahmadinejad made the comment during an exchange with a cleric that was captured on videotape.
"On the last day when I was speaking before the assembly, one of our group told me that when I started to say 'In the name of God the almighty and merciful,' he saw a light around me, and I was placed inside this aura. I felt it myself," Ahmadinejad said. "I felt the atmosphere suddenly change, and for those 27 or 28 minutes, the leaders of the world did not blink. When I say they didn't bat an eyelid, I'm not exaggerating because I was looking at them. And they were rapt."
The shutdown came after 70 warnings from the government's press monitoring office, according to Agence France Presse.
Sharq's moderate editorial line in recent weeks has emphasized the conflict between traditionalists and fundamentalists in the Middle East; expressed support for former President Khatami's visit to the United States; and asserted that press freedom is essential for Iran's development.
"The more a government is flexible toward the press, the more and better grounds will be paved for development of a society when its performance and other activities are under the watchful eyes of the print media," wrote the editors on Aug. 31.
"It is and should be natural for societies and nations to uphold the value of press freedom and the free flow of news and information as the instruments to help achieve decent levels of growth and development. Governments throughout the world owe their successes to the performance of their mass media. Governments should make appropriate use of the capabilities, potentials and opportunities that is made available by the media."
The government's decision to close the paper drew sharp condemnation from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Sharq editors themselves. The Inter Press Service quoted Sharq writer Akbar Montajabi's blog entry after the ban: "Shargh had become a political club for all the people who had become disillusioned by (last year's presidential) elections. The ban is a price it is paying for criticising the administration, however mildly, and this is a high alert situation."
"Reacting to a cartoon is not the press watchdog's job and [it] cannot shut down a paper for this reason," Sharq director Mehdi Rahmanian said, insisting "the court has to decide on that."
A PBS "Wide Angle" documentary from two years ago depicted Sharq as a "lightning rod for censorship," with a youthful staff (the average age is 28), more female journalists than any other paper and a committment to professional journalism and neutral reporting.
The editors of Rooz, Iran's leading independent news site in English, see the shutdown as more of the same from Ahmadinejad's government. "It appears that as the nuclear crises approaches its final hours of decision, the government will impose even [more] controls and restrictions on the media in an effort to control public opinion over the issue."
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