IFJ Criticises “Political Interference” as Cartoons Rows Put Journalists in Jail in Iran and Jordan

The International Federation of Journalists today protested over political interference in media which has led to new attacks on press freedom and the jailing of journalists in Iran and Jordan.

On 30 May, the Iranian government's official national newspaper, Iran, published by the Iranian news agency, IRNA, was banned and two of its journalists imprisoned for publishing a cartoon by Azeri artist Mana Neyestani that ignited clashes between police and demonstrators in the northwestern city of Tabriz. Four other journalists have also been detained.

At the same time, earlier in the week two newspaper editors, Jihad Momani, former editor of the tabloid weekly Shihane, and Hisham al-Khalidi, editor-in-chief of the tabloid al-Mehwar, were jailed for two months by a Jordanian court for 'attacking religious sentiment' by reprinting cartoons deemed offensive to Prophet Muhammad.

“At a time when crisis within the region requires support for independent, professional journalism we find these actions against newspapers and journalists shocking,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “The media are victims of political interference and manipulation. It is a form of dirty politics that promotes censorship and damages democracy".

The IFJ says that controversy over use of cartoons in media needs to be dealt with through robust internal debate, more support for ethical, independent journalism and, above all, respect for free expression. “Putting journalists in jail never solves a problem, it only increase ignorance and creates a fearful atmosphere in which self-censorship prevails,” said White.

In Iran, the Iran cartoonist and page editor - Mana Neyestani and Mehrdad Qasemfar – were arrested and detained in Tehran's Evin prison. The closure of the newspaper has left over 300 media workers unemployed and the paper will not be published until a verdict on the case has been issued by a special tribunal dealing with press offences.

On 27 May, Vahid Dargahi, the editor of the weekly Avay Ardabil, Ali Nazari, the editor of the weekly Araz, Reza Kazemi, the managing editor of Shams Tabriz, and journalists Orouj Amiri and Amin Movahedi were detained following an explosion of unrest among members of the Azeri ethnic minority.

Iran is not the first newspaper to run into problems this year. A weekly paper in southern Iran was permanently shut down in April for "insulting the Islamic republic's leadership". Earlier, another local weekly published in Iran's ethnic Azeri provinces was shut down following charges of ethnic bias and of acting against national security. Between 2000 and 2004, Iran's hard-line judiciary shut down a large number of mostly reformist newspapers and magazines and put scores of journalists in jail.

“The choice to publish or not to publish cartoons is the responsibility of journalists and the decision of the press court in Iran is an example of censorship that infringes basic international standards of freedom of expression,” said White.

In Jordan, both Momani and Al-Khalidli have been on bail since their arrest in February for printing the drawings, first published in September by Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. The cartoons were subsequently re-published by numerous mainly European papers, triggering the fury of Muslims around the world, sparking often violent protests and triggering a boycott of Danish goods in several Muslim countries. Momeni and Khalidi both pleaded not guilty.

The IFJ issued a statement at the time calling for no victimisation of journalists who decided to publish the cartoons and urging a robust debate among media professionals to defend free expression and to support ethical independence. "This whole controversy has been hijacked by political interests at the expense of free expression and editorial independence,” said White. “Governments and the courts must keep their hands out of the newsroom and leave professional matters to journalists themselves.”

The jailings come as journalists groups in the region are gearing up for a campaign for an end to legal attacks on legitimate journalism. In a meeting held in May in Beirut, IFJ affiliates from the region, including journalists’ groups from Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, the Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan the UAE, Bahrain joined journalists’ unions from Great Britain and Ireland, Germany and Belgium in issuing a call for a regional campaign to foster professional solidarity in the Arab World and Iran and to challenge existing legal restraints on media..

The meeting recognised that the political culture in many regions of the world, including the Middle East and North Africa, works against a clear separation of journalism and political activity and called for wider respect of ethical journalism, greater editorial independence and the repeal of harsh laws that can lead to the imprisonment of journalists.

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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 110 countries