Iranian authorities closed down the newspaper Mardom-e Emrouz on Saturday, January 17 following the publication of an article about the Charlie Hebdo attacks. According to Mohammad Ghouchani, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Tehran’s attorney general ordered the closure.

On Thursday, January 15,  Mardom-e Emrouz’s front page featured a photograph of actor George Clooney alongside his message of support for Charlie Hebdo and its staff. Hardliner media and politicians responded with outrage.

Hardliner MP Hamid Resaee circulated a letter to MPs that called for the Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance to take decisive action against Mardom-e Emrouz. Iranian media reported that 70 parliamentarians had signed the letter.

On the same day that Mardom-e Emrouz’s report on Clooney’s statements was published, Tehran representative Zohreh Tabib Zadeh threatened the Minister of Culture with impeachment if he did not take action against the newspaper.

The newspaper Kayhan, which operates under the supervision of the Supreme Leader’s office, called for the judiciary to prosecute the newspaper. “If in France the open or hidden dominance of Zionist criminals encouraged Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to insult the sacred realm of the Prophet, what has caused the astonishing negligence and the silence of judiciary officials and those who are asleep at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance when obscene publications have added their voice to the infidels and the enemies the Prophet?” the paper asked. “Under what justification are the lackeys of the ‘ideological war’ able to freely spread hate and promote disrespect for the Prophet of Islam in the capital of Islamic Iran, especially since these people’s pasts are known to everybody?”

In response to the criticism, Mardom-e Emrouz published an explanation in Saturday’s edition. “Publishing the statements by George Clooney were meant to express solidarity with the victims and oppose terrorism, not to show approval of any insults. Of course, the atmosphere has changed since the publication of the latest issue [of Charlie Hebdo].”

But this explanation was not sufficient, and Mardom-e Emrouz was closed on Saturday.

Mardom-e Emrouz is known for its pro-Rouhani stance. In recent months the paper has been somewhat bold, publishing articles that generally support the president and his administration, though its editors have been careful not to publish anything considered to be off limits by the regime.

But Saturday’s ban show that it had failed in that pursuit. The closure also points to a wider problem:  Rouhani’s failure to expand freedom of the press in Iran more generally. The move reveals enormous divisions within Iran’s political landscape.

The battle over free expression has just begun in Iran, with Rouhani and his administration pitted against hardliners, who are deeply entrenched in both parliament and the judiciary. The closure of Mardom-e Emrouz is a reminder of how bitter the fight will be, and illustrates how much power hardliners command. 

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