Press watchdog criticizes Iran's closure of paper for reporting case of popular cleric

CAIRO, Egypt - A hard-line court's closure of an Iranian paper for violating a ban on reporting on a cleric who resigned his post was a crude attempt at stifling public debate, a media monitoring group said on Tuesday.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned last week's closure of the reformist daily Azad and government ban on reporting on Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, who quit as a prayer-leader in the central city of Isfahan over what he called the absolute hold on power hard-liners wielded in Iran.

The media blackout on Taheri and paper's closure were "crude attempts to silence public debate about a story of interest," the press watchdog said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press office in Cairo.

Azad's chief editor Bijan Safsari told The Associated Press on Saturday that the Tehran Press Court had ordered him to stop publishing after the newspaper defied the ban imposed by Iran's Supreme National Security Council.

The council, Iran's highest decision-making body on security matters, issued the ban Wednesday, a day after Taheri resigned. He said ruling hard-liners were "paralyzing" civil and elected institutions in the name of religion to maintain their hold on power.

"We call on Iranian authorities to reverse both bans immediately," the CPJ's statement said.

U.S. President George W. Bush (on Friday expressed America's support for Iranians who rallied behind Taheri and denounced Iran's "uncompromising, destructive policies."

Bush's remarks attracted stinging criticism from Iranian reformists and hard-liners alike, who demanded the U.S. leader stay out of Iranian affairs.

Hard-liners have effectively thwarted the reform program of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami through closing more than 50 liberal newspapers and detaining or jailing dozens of pro-reform journalists and political activists.