New York, February 9, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the closing of two Yemeni newspapers and a Malaysian paper after they published controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. At least four governments have now taken punitive action against newspapers or their editors for publishing some of the 12 cartoons that have sparked protests and violence in several cities, CPJ research shows.
“Government actions to close newspapers in Yemen and Malaysia are disturbing,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “While we understand this issue is deeply sensitive, the solution cannot be found in silencing newspapers, at least some of which printed the cartoons as a way to provide context and understanding.”
The Yemeni Ministry of Information on Wednesday ordered the closure of the English-language newspaper Yemen Observer after it published three cartoons with black marks covering potentially offensive portions. Editor-in-Chief Mohammed Al-Asadi told CPJ that it published the drawings on February 4 to “protest the concept of their existence.” The Sana’a-based paper sought to denounce the cartoons while calling for calm and urging Yemenis to accept apologies offered in Denmark, where the cartoons were first published last September, he said.
An official at the Yemeni Ministry of Information said the paper will be closed until further notice, Reuters reported. Al-Asadi told CPJ he is set to appear before the Press and Publication Court on Saturday to protest the closing. The Yemen Observer had received numerous threatening e-mails, phone calls, and letters from people who called the cartoons’ publication blasphemous, and Al-Asadi told CPJ he was worried about the safety of his staff.
According to the NewsYemen Web site and local journalists, the Ministry of Information also revoked the license of the Arabic-language Al-Rai Al-Aam for publishing a selection of the drawings last week. CPJ was unable to reach the newspaper’s editors for comment.
The Yemen Observer and Al-Rai Al-Aam were the second and third newspapers to be closed by government order in Yemen this week. On Monday, Yemen’s Ministry of Information ordered the closure of Al-Hurriya after it published four drawings on February 2 as part of its coverage of the protests spawned by the cartoons, the state-run Saba news agency reported.
In Malaysia, the government suspended the publishing license of the Sarawak Tribune, a regional daily, and began a criminal investigation of newspaper staff after it printed cartoons on February 4. The announcement of the paper’s closing, reported today by the official news agency Bernama, said the suspension was immediate. The Kuala Lumpur-based New Straits Times said the suspension will continue pending the outcome of an investigation by the Internal Security Ministry. The Tribune published one of the 12 cartoons, according to news reports.
The Tribune’s owner, the Sarawak Press Newsgroup, issued two apologies and fired Editor Lester Melanyi, who said he was responsible for printing the cartoons, according to local media reports.
While Malaysia’s press is tightly controlled, the closing of the Sarawak Tribune marks the first time in almost 20 years that the government has resorted to shutting down a newspaper, according to local media reports.
The cartoon controversy began last September when the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 drawings of Muhammad, one of them depicting the prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban with a lit fuse. The publication caused anger in the Muslim world, where many consider depictions of Muhammad to be blasphemous. 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.
Jordan and South Africa have also taken punitive steps in recent days after cartoons were reprinted.
Read CPJ’s earlier alerts on related developments in: