In the 1990s, a new generation of cartoonists was born in Iran. There was an increase in the number of newspapers when Mohammad Khatami came to power [Editor’s Note: more licenses were given out and there was greater freedom of expression.] This allowed many satirists and cartoonists to publish their work and make a name for themselves. But in 1999, there was a mass closure of newspapers [after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pushed for a crackdown]. Cartoonists quickly starting coming under pressure. When cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar
was arrested for portraying hardline cleric Mullah Mesbah as an alligator [which was a play on his name], this marked the start of a bleak new era.
Until then, it was the newspapers themselves that could get into trouble. For example, Iran Farda magazine, which I worked for, was sent to court over a few of my cartoons, but I wasn’t under any pressure myself. This changed after the crackdown – anyone involved with publishing objectionable material, including writers and cartoonists, could be taken to court. So the authorities began threatening and arresting cartoonists themselves.
Meanwhile, the growing threat of newspaper closures caused satirical columns and political cartoons to be axed from their pages. Newspapers that did keep them started practicing self-censorship. Even after living abroad for several years, I still feel self-censorship is part of me. Sometimes, unless someone points it out to me, I’m not even aware that I have subconsciously censored some issues in my mind.
I believe this mounting pressure on famous cartoonists and satirists is what has led to the emergence of satirical pages published under assumed names in cyberspace. They play an important role. However, in my opinion, a signed cartoon remains much more powerful for readers.