TEHRAN -- A reformist-oriented daily Iranian newspaper has been shut down and its manager jailed after the publication was accused of insulting Islam, various media accounts reported Thursday.
The incident raises questions about pledges to ease press restrictions from President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who took office in August.
The Aseman, or Sky newspaper, which was pro-Rouhani in outlook, was closed for "spreading lies and insulting the holy precepts of Islam,” said the official Islamic Republic News Agency, quoting a source in the public prosecutor’s office.
The offending article quoted an academic recounting how critics more than three decades ago had deplored as “inhumane” Islamic laws enshrining the principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The observation touched a nerve.
A furor erupted in conservative and religious circles here. Several lawmakers called for the newspaper to be shut down. An influential cleric, Ayatollah Hashem Husseini Bushehri, expressed outrage.
“Shall we once again witness domestic dailies regarding the divine penalty code as 'inhumane,' and using sacrilegious phrases and words to insult … holy foundations?” the ayatollah said in a speech that received considerable attention.
The cleric was referring to an incident that occurred in the early years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, harshly criticized politicians and academics who questioned the Islamic penal code and the death penalty.
In the current controversy, the newspaper editor, Mohammad Qouchani, apologized for the offending article and said its publication had been inadvertent.
"The article was not supposed to be published, as we respect the Islamic penalty code and other Islamic precepts,” the editor told Iran´s semiofficial Mehr news agency. “But due to some technical error, it was unfortunately published, and I do apologize.”
Still, the newspaper manager, Abbas Bozorgmehr, was detained and was being held on the equivalent of $100,000 bail, reported the semiofficial Islamic Students News Agency.
The newspaper is a long-time weekly that had begun publishing on a daily basis last week, amid considerable fanfare in journalism circles here.
Critics say there has been little improvement in press freedom, Internet access and civil liberties under Rouhani's administration. Another reformist newspaper, Bahar, was shut down in October after publishing a controversial account of early Islamic history.
In his presidential campaign, Rouhani called for greater individual rights and spoke of the need for more cultural openness. But the new president is caught between liberals pushing for reforms and hard-liners, his chief rivals, who are hostile to such changes.
A month ago, more than 700 of the country´s journalists petitioned the president to reopen the shuttered Press Assn., a journalists trade group. The association and many other civil society groups were closed during the eight-year presidency of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut. Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels contributed from Beirut.