Thousands of Ethnic Azeris in Iran took to the streets to show their anger with a popular children’s channel using a negative racial stereotype in a programme.
On November 6, the children’s program Fitilehha (Candle Wicks) on İRİB TV-2 came under criticism for depicting an ethnic Azeri boy brushing his teeth with toilet brush.
The scene disturbed members of the largest minority ethnic group of the country, leading to huge street protests in the northwestern cities of Tabriz, Urmia (Orumieh), and Zanjan.
During the protests, security measures were tightened by the Iranian authorities, who deployed several riot police on the streets, using tear gas on the crowd, according to eye witnesses.
As the protests were ongoing Iranian authorities expressed their condolences and apologies over the issue.
Azeris or Azerbaijanis comprise (13 to 22 million according to different statistics) by far the second largest ethnic group in Iran, far outnumbering 9 million population of the neighbouring Azerbaijan Republic, which was a member of the Soviet Union).
Azeris in Iran accuse the government of discriminating against them by prohibiting the Azeri language in schools, harassing Azeri activists or organisers, and changing Azeri geographic names.
Azeri groups also say a number of Azeri political prisoners have been jailed for advocating cultural and language rights for Azeris. The government has charged several of them with “revolting against the Islamic state”.
The head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), Mohammad Sarafraz, apologised for the”insulting” episode in the TV program.
“The [IRIB] apologises for the slip-up, and it will redouble its efforts to strengthen national unity among Iranian ethnic groups,” Sarafraz said, adding that the programme was cancelled and its supervisor was fired.
Another apology came from the head of the IRIB’s public relation’s department, Davud Nemati-Anarki, who called the issue a case of “unintentional offence.”
Mohammad Ismail Saeedi, a lawmaker from Tabriz, also commented on the racial slur, saying that an “insult against the Azeri people is an insult against all Iranian people.”
Negative racial discourse against Azeris is not new in Iran, according to Azeri activist Ibrahim Savalan, who spoke to Azadlıq Radio about the issue on Monday.
Savalan said that television channels in Iran have always had an aggressive attitude against ethnic Azeris and look for opportunities to insult them.
In 2006, Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani draw a cockroach speaking in the Azeri language in the children’s section of a state newspaper, sparking riots across the country.
The unrest claimed nineteen lives at the time as the police used disproportionate force against the demonstrators. TRT World/agencies