In Belarus and India, governments launch criminal actionsCartoon furor becomes press freedom crisis

New York, February 23, 2006—Controversy over the publication of drawings of the Prophet Muhammed continued to grow as an international press freedom crisis on Thursday as Indian authorities imprisoned a magazine editor and Belarusian prosecutors opened a criminal probe into a weekly newspaper. In each case, the publications said they printed one or more cartoons to provide context for the worldwide furor that has now claimed at least 48 lives.

At least nine countries worldwide have now taken punitive actions against publications or their editors for reprinting one or more of the 12 depictions first published last year by a Danish newspaper, according to research compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Six newspapers in three countries have been forced to close and at least nine journalists in four countries have been arrested and face potential criminal prosecution. Governments have also issued censorship orders and sponsored protests.

In Belarus, the state prosecutor’s office is investigating potential charges of inciting religious hatred against the independent weekly Zgoda after the newspaper reprinted eight of the 12 Danish drawings of the Prophet Muhammad on February 17. The drawings ran alongside an article headlined “Political Creation,” which chronicled the uproar caused by the cartoons. The Belarusian Security Service (KGB) is conducting the probe, Zgoda Editor-in-Chief Aleksei Korol told CPJ in a telephone interview today.

KGB agents searched Korol’s Minsk apartment, which also serves as the weekly’s headquarters, on Wednesday, questioning him and his deputy, Aleksandr Sdvizhkov, for two hours, he said. Agents confiscated the paper’s four computers, computer discs, and other electronic equipment, Korol said. The editors have not been formally charged, Korol told CPJ.

The probe was begun after authorities received complaints from the state Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs on behalf of the small Muslim community in Belarus, according to local press reports.

Korol said he believes the government will use the case as a pretext to close his 5,000-circulation newspaper, one of the few sources of independent news in the tightly controlled country. Zgoda has covered the presidential election campaign of opposition candidate Aleksandr Kozulin, a rival to incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko who is seeking a third term on March 19. State media, which dominate the press landscape, have not covered the opposition.

Information Minister Vladimir Rusakevich told the news agency Interfax later today that the ministry plans to suspend Zgoda for three months for republishing the cartoons, and proceed to seek the paper’s permanent closure in court.

In New Delhi, India, police arrested Alok Tomar, editor of the Hindi-language magazine Shabdarth after receiving a complaint that a cartoon of the prophet had appeared in the magazine. Indian media reports say New Delhi police also confiscated several hundred copies of the magazine and ordered police in other states to seize all copies of the magazine too.

According to Tomar’s colleagues quoted in media reports, one cartoon was reprinted in Shabdarth to accompany an article that criticized the original publication of the drawings. No formal charge against Tomar was publicly disclosed, but the editor remained in jail as of Thursday.

Tomar’s associates insisted the magazine, which isn’t widely circulated, had no intention to offend Muslims. The cartoon was reprinted to support an article that, on the contrary, argued the media should refrain from criticizing religious practices, journalist Sapnendra Sinha told The Associated Press.

“While we recognize the many deeply held views, we are alarmed that countries around the world are using this issue as pretext for closing independent publications and silencing critical voices,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.

Today, CPJ sent letters to heads of state in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan, protesting the arrests of journalists in those countries. Read the letters:
To Jordan
To Yemen
To Algeria

Here are earlier developments as reported by CPJ:

In Denmark
In Jordan and South Africa
In Yemen and Malaysia
In Yemen and Algeria
In Morocco
In Russia