A censorship order in South Africa; attacks reported in Beirut Jailing of Jordanian editors for prophet cartoons draws alarm

New York, February 6, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by the arrest of two Jordanian editors in Amman for publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The journalists, charged twice in three days, face criminal counts that include incitement to violence and blasphemy. The action comes as violence against journalists was reported in Lebanon, and a South African court censored two top newspapers.

Jordan’s Press and Publication Department brought charges today against Jihad Momani, former editor-in-chief of the weekly Shihan, and Hashem al-Khalidi, editor-in-chief of the weekly Al-Mehwar. The journalists face charges of violating Article 5 and 7 of the Press and Publication Law. Article 5 prohibits “publishing anything that conflicts with the … values of the Arab and Islamic nation,” while Article 7 prohibits “publishing anything that may instigate violence, prejudice, bigotry or of anything which invites racism, sectarianism or provincialism.” Penalties include fines.

Momani and Khalidi were first detained on Saturday and spent the night at the Criminal Investigation Directorate. Amman Public Prosecutor Saber Rawashdeh charged the two with blasphemy in violation of Article 278 of the penal code on Sunday. They appeared before the Amman Magistrate Court the same day, pleaded not guilty, and were released on bail. Momani’s trial is scheduled for February 9, while Khalidi’s is set for February 15. If convicted, both face up to three months imprisonment.

Momani and Khalidi were ordered arrested again today pending investigation into the new charges. Momani had checked in to al-Markaz al-Arabi hospital complaining of chest pain following his release on bail on Sunday. Momani’s doctor said that the journalist was in no condition to leave the hospital, but national security officers were attempting to take him into custody, a CPJ source said. Khalidi was transported back to prison, according to Nidal Mansour of the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists. The journalists can be held for 14 days while an investigation into the charges is carried out.

Al-Mehwar was the first to publish the cartoons on January 26, with Shihan following a week later. The weeklies are the only Arab publication to print the cartoons. Both editors said their intention was to show that the cartoons were silly and to calm the anger that has swept the Muslim world.

“We are deeply concerned by the jailing of Jihad Momani and Hashem al-Khalidi and the possibility that they could serve a lengthy prison sentences for what they published,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “While we recognize the anger this controversy has caused, journalists should not be jailed for what they publish, even when it is considered offensive.”

The Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of Muhammad on September 30, 2005, sparking outrage in the Muslim world where depictions of the prophet are forbidden. One drawing showed Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban with a lit fuse. The cartoons gained increased attention after they were reprinted in the January 10 edition of Magazinet, a small Christian evangelical weekly based in Norway, according to local and international press reports.

Elsewhere, the issue played out in the courts and on the streets.

In South Africa, the Johannesburg High Court on Friday banned Sunday newspapers from publishing the cartoons, according to local and international news reports. Judge Mohamed Jajbhay ruled that the right to dignity outweighed the right to freedom of expression, and that the cartoons were an affront to the dignity of Muslim people.

A Muslim group, the Jamiat-ul Ulama of Transvaal, had applied for the injunction against Johncom Media (publisher of The Sunday Times) and Independent Newspapers (publisher of The Sunday Independent) after failing to obtain assurances that they would not publish the cartoons. It sought such assurances after one of the cartoons appeared in the Friday edition of the independent weekly Mail and Guardian. Ferial Hafferjee, the editor of the Mail and Guardian who is Muslim, told the BBC news Web site that she had received threats after the cartoon appeared.

Neither The Sunday Independent nor the The Sunday Times were planning to publish the cartoons, according to the February 5 edition of The Sunday Independent. Both newspapers said they plan to challenge the injunction, which has caused an outcry from newspaper editors and freedom of expression groups in South Africa. They are likely to appear in court on February 28 to argue against the injunction being made permanent.

“This is a sensitive issue, but state censorship is utterly misguided,” Cooper said. “The court has no business dictating what a newspaper should run and what its readers should see.”

In Lebanon, protests over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad escalated on Sunday into sectarian fighting between Muslim and Christian communities. Muslim protesters set fire to the Danish embassy on Sunday and rampaged through a predominantly Christian neighborhood. News photographers and cameramen at the scene were roughed up and some equipment was destroyed, local journalists told CPJ. The New York Times reported that a Dutch news photographer was beaten when several demonstrators mistook him for being Danish.