Following violent ethnic protests by Iran’s minority Azeri community over a cartoon depicting a cockroach speaking their language, the Iranian government has suspended the state-owned newspaper responsible for the publication.
The cartoon, published on 19 May in the Farsi-language government-owned ‘Iran’ newspaper, offended the Azeri community, which make up about a quarter of the country’s 70 million population. Protesters, mainly Azeri students, took to the streets in response to a lack of government action against the paper.
“What contributed to the frustration was that nothing happened at first [no action from the government]. The frustration had built up and protests started when there was no response,” Ben Faulks, an analyst specialising on Iran from the Eurasia Group, a global political risk advisory and consulting firm, said from London.
The protests, calling for action against the newspaper, increased in northwestern Iran, where the majority of Azeris live. Demonstrations are rare in Iran and when they do occur are ruthlessly suppressed.
On Monday, demonstrators threw stones at government buildings and banks in Tabriz, the provincial capital of Eastern Azerbaijan province in northwestern Iran and home to many Azeris, but were dispersed by police using tear gas.
After days of numerous protests, Iran’s press supervisory board banned the state newspaper indefinitely. The cartoonist, Mana Neyestani, an ethnic Azeri herself, as well as Editor-in-Chief Mehrdad Qasemfar, were both arrested.
The cartoon showed a boy saying the Persian word for cockroach in different ways. The bug, not understanding, said in return: “What?” in Azeri, a language related to Turkish.
Although Azeris are prominent among Iran’s elite - the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is an Azeri - they are often the targets of jokes and regularly mocked by the Persian majority.
“Private jokes are often made at their [ethnic Azeris] expense, especially their language - even though they are pretty well integrated and well off in the country. But this was a public insult made by a government-owned newspaper, which was seen as particularly offensive,” the Eurasia Group analyst added.