The editor in chief and a social-media administrator of Iran’s semiofficial ILNA news agency were detained last week over a cartoon deemed insulting to the country's leadership.
The cartoon, which appeared to mock Iran’s highest authority, was reportedly removed from ILNA’s Telegram channel shortly after being posted.
ILNA’s editor in chief, Masud Heydari, has been released on bail but the news agency’s Telegram administrator Hamid Haghjoo remains in detention. It is not clear if the two have been charged.
Tehran’s Prosecutor Ali Alghasi Mehr said on April 27 that an investigation has been launched into the affair.
“Immediately after the publishing of the insulting image, it was ordered to be removed from the channel,” Alghasi Mehr was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
“The [person in charge] of ILNA and the administrator of the Telegram channel were both arrested on the evening of [April 23],” he added.
ILNA has denied any affiliation with the “disrespectful” cartoon while accusing its opponents of having faked the news agency’s logo and falsely accused it of publishing the cartoon.
The cartoon mocks those promoting fake treatments to ward off the coronavirus, including drinking camel urine and inserting violet oil in the anus, under the guise of Islamic medicine.
It appeared to suggest that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is supportive of such measures, depicting him as a nurse who is calling for silence.
Hard hit by coronavirus
Iran has been one of the hardest hit countries in the Middle East by the coronavirus pandemic. It has officially recorded more than 91,000 confirmed cases and just over 5,800 deaths, though critics believe those numbers may be far higher given the lack of transparency and media freedom in the country.
A man who had posted online a video of himself drinking a glass of camel urine was detained last week after the video went viral and many Iranians mocked him on social media.
The New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ) said Iranian authorities should immediately drop their investigations into Heydari and Haghjoo and let them work freely.
"At a time when prisons are petri dishes for the COVID-19 virus, Iranian authorities should cease locking up journalists for trivial offenses like allegedly sharing a cartoon," CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said in an April 27 statement.
"Hamid Haghjoo should be released immediately, and authorities should drop any investigation into him, Masud Heydari, and all other journalists at the Iranian Labor News Agency [ILNA],” he added.
Criticism of Khamenei is a red line in the Islamic Republic where the Iranian leader has the last say in all state matters.
Iranian leaders have called on citizens to follow health protocols and social-distancing measures aimed at containing the deadly outbreak that has killed over 5,800 and infected more than 91,000 Iranians, according to official figures. Real numbers are believed to be significantly higher.
Iran ranks 170th on Reporters Without Borders 2020 Press Freedom Index.
A number of journalists and cartoonists have been arrested in past years and charged with security crimes that are often brought against intellectuals and dissidents.