In Iran, creating satire, even in the form of cartoons, is a dangerous line of work. In recent years, making fun of the country’s politicians has landed many satirists in jail, and pushed others to either flee abroad or to publish their jokes on social networks under pseudonyms.
Our first Observer is Mana Neyestani, a famous Iranian cartoonist. He fled the country after the 2009 elections, first residing in Malaysia before moving to France two years ago. He has kept drawing, and recently published cartoons in several French newspapers, including Le Monde and Libération.
“Before the crackdown, the authorities would go after newspapers; after, they started threatening the cartoonists themselves”
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.
Neyestani working on his cartoon.
"We apologize to everyone for showing parts of the bride's body"
Ali (not his real name) runs a popular Facebook page full of political jokes and satire. He lives inside Iran.
Political satire is popular in Iran because politics affect every aspect of Iranians’ lives. For example, when an 18-year-old who doesn’t know much about politics and has no interest in it is arrested by the police for the way he is dressed or his hairstyle, he will develop a grudge against the government. Because young people can’t have any fun in life, we want to forget about our problems by laughing at them. We look at everything as a joke! What is better than mocking something that has hurt us, like politics?But ridiculing politics has its downsides. I am scared of the police and intelligence services, but my passion for this kind of work reduces that fear, and so I try not to think about the consequences too much. That said, I have been anonymously threatened by some individuals who visit my page. Funnily enough, I was also asked by some people working on a presidential candidate’s campaign to put up ads for him on my page!
A sampling of jokes published on Facebook: