Second Russian paper closes in wake of Danish cartoon controversy

New York, February 21, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the closure of a second Russian newspaper that published religious cartoons related to the controversy over Danish drawings of the Prophet Muhammad.

The weekly Nash Region in the city of Vologda ran a montage of the Danish cartoons on February 15, with some doctored or printed only partially, international and local media reported. The montage illustrated an article titled “The cartoon war: opinions,” which gave the views of religious and human rights experts on the controversy.

On February 17, the Vologda regional prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case against Nash Region editor Anna Smirnova. It accused her of using her position to incite hatred. If convicted, Smirnova could face a large fine or a prison sentence of up to five years, according to local reports. Her husband Mikhail Smirnov owns Nash Region, which has a circulation of 4,000 and a staff of three. It is based in Volograd, 500 kilometers (310 miles) northeast of Moscow.

Smirnov said Monday he was closing down the paper because he feared staff could be accused of provoking anti-Muslim sentiments, local reports said. Nash Region is the first Russian publication to produce a version of the 12 cartoons originally published by Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in September 2005.

A newspaper in the southern Russian city of Volgograd was shuttered on February 17 after publishing a cartoon of leading figures of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Daily Gorodskiye Vesti (City News), which is partly owned by the Volgograd city administration, ran a cartoon on February 9 depicting Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are viewed by many Muslims as blasphemous. Acting Mayor Andrei Doronin said those responsible would be fired and the rest of the staff transferred to a new publication. Doronin said the closure of the paper was an attempt to prevent incitement based on religious or ethnic grounds, the business daily Kommersant reported.

“Both Nash Region and Gorodskiye Novosti were closed by their owners – an alarming demonstration of the already widespread self-censorship on this and other issues in the Russian press ,” CPJ executive director Ann Cooper said. “We call on Russian authorities to stop the criminal case against Anna Smirnova and allow both Nash Region and Gorodskiye Novosti to continue publishing with all their staff.”

In a separate development, Saudi authorities closed the tabloid weekly Shams on Monday after it republished three of the original cartoons that had appeared in Jyllands-Posten. The paper’s editor, speaking on condition that his name not be used, told the Associated Press that Saudi authorities verbally ordered to paper to cease publishing on Monday some three weeks after it ran blurred photos of some of the cartoons. The editor claimed the he was following a religious edict of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, or mufti, who he said recently urged republication of the cartoons “to show their ugliness and to expand the volume of anger.” The editor maintained the edition of Shams that carried the cartoons had been approved by the Ministry of Information before its distribution, the AP reported.

In the Arab world, governments in Algeria, Jordan, Syria and Yemen have detained reporters, and suspended newspapers that published the cartoons or commented on them.