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Iran: Authorities Shut Down Al-Jazeera Bureau After Coverage Of Ethnic Clashes

Prague, 19 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Iran has temporarily closed the Tehran bureau of the Al-Jazeera television network, suspending all of the station's activities in Iran.

Authorities are accusing Al-Jazeera of stirring up ethnic violence following its coverage of recent clashes between ethnic Arabs and security forces in southwestern Iran.

Tehran says it is launching an investigation into Al-Jazeera's coverage of the clashes, which took place in the city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan Province.

The head of the Culture Ministry's foreign media office, Mohammad Hussein Khoshvaght, told the state news agency IRNA that Al-Jazeera will remain suspended until it is clear what role the network may have played in "manipulating public sentiment" and "creating chaotic conditions" in Ahvaz.

The suspension follows complaints about Al-Jazeera by Iranian lawmakers.

Parliament deputies accuse the channel of portraying last week's violence in Khuzestan as separatist unrest instigated by Iran's Arab minority. In Iran, where Arabs make up just 3 percent of the population, rumors of ethnic strife can spark deep misgivings among the Persian majority.

Iranian lawmakers claim Al-Jazeera deliberately sought to stir ethnic hostilities by suggesting a separatist uprising, and have called for all network employees to be expelled from the country.

Al-Jazeera defends its coverage of the unrest. Jihad Ballout, a spokesman for the Arabic-language channel, says Tehran's decision is unexpected and regrettable.

“I don't think Al-Jazeera would in any way, or could in any way, be deemed to be involved in any domestic developments [in Iran]," Ballout said. "At the end of the day, we are a news organization, like any other news organization, that tries to cover issues on the ground as they are. We will continue to do our best to cover the Iranian scene in a comprehensive, balanced and objective way. We've been through this before with other states and I think common sense and wisdom eventually prevailed. And we are hoping that the relevant authorities in Iran would look at media in the correct light and perhaps reconsider their decision very soon.”

Iranian officials say the unrest was sparked by a letter purporting to detail a plan for bringing masses of non-Arabs into Ahvaz, a main population center of Iran's Arab minority.

The letter has been attributed to Iran's former vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi. But Iranian authorities say the letter is a forgery; Abtahi himself has denied writing the letter.
"At the end of the day, we are a news organization, like any other news organization, that tries to cover issues on the ground as they are." -- Al-Jazeera spokesman

Writing on his personal website, Abtahi said even if confirmed by Iran's supreme leader or the Supreme National Security Council, a decision to shift the ethnic composition of a region cannot be implemented in Iran.

The letter calling for the ethnic resettlement had appeared on the website of the irredentist Democratic Popular Movement of Ahvazi Arabs.

The letter spurred several hundred ethnic Arab Ahvaz residents to gather on 15 April to protest the plan. The demonstration turned violent, with protesters setting fire to banks and some government buildings.

A representative of the UK-based Ahvazi Arabs group had told Al-Jazeera that, in posting the letter, it had called for peaceful demonstrations in Khuzestan to mark what it called "80 years of Iranian occupation." But, the group claimed, the government had opted to use military force regardless.

Officials say at least five people were killed and some 200 arrested in clashes between the ethnic Arabs and security forces.

Iran's intelligence ministry said yesterday that many of the people who were arrested during the unrest had links to foreign groups or television networks that have been working to overthrow the Islamic government of Iran.

Youseef Azizi Banitorof, a journalist from Khuzestan, told Radio Farda that economic problems and poverty in the oil-rich province are the main reasons for discontent among ethnic Arabs.

"Whether we consider Mr. Abtahi's letter a forgery or not makes no difference to the issue; this has always been a ticking time bomb," Banitorof said. "We had warned authorities about [these problems] before; we had warned about the poverty belt around Ahvaz, that is mainly Arab. We had also warned about poverty in Abadan and other cities. We had always warned about it and offered some solutions, but nobody paid any attention."

Iranian authorities say the situation in Ahvaz is back to normal, and the city is reported to be calm.

A member of the parliament's national security and foreign policy commission said a fact-finding team will be dispatched to Khuzestan to investigate the causes of the recent unrest.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.