Yemeni paper closed, editor wanted for publishing cartoons

New York, February 7, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by the Yemeni government’s decision to revoke the license of the private weekly Al-Hurriya Ahliya and issue an arrest warrant for the paper’s editor. The actions came after Al-Hurriya became the third Arab newspaper to publish controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The public prosecutor ordered the arrest late Monday of Abdulkarim Sabra, editor-in-chief and publisher of Al-Hurriya, for publishing the cartoons, according to news reports and CPJ sources. Sabra could not be reached for comment, but a human rights lawyer in Yemen told CPJ that Sabra could be charged under Article 103 of the Press and Publication Law.

Article 103 prohibits “printing, publishing, circulating or broadcasting … anything which prejudices the Islamic faith and its lofty principles or belittles religions or humanitarian creeds.” If convicted on that charge, Sabra could be imprisoned for up to one year.

Also Monday, the 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. The ministry also removed all issues from newsstands.

“We’re alarmed by the closure of Al-Hurriya and the arrest warrant against Abdulkarim Sabra,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “While we understand the sensitivities surrounding these cartoons, the arrest of a journalist for his editorial choices is unacceptable. We call on Yemeni authorities to drop charges against Sabra and to allow the newspaper to resume publishing.”

Sabra issued a statement saying that the publication of the drawings was a mistake, NewsYemen reported today. Sabra said their publication was done in the context of the paper’s overall coverage.

The controversy began last September when the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons 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. The issue has sparked large protests and violence in several cities.

Two Jordanian newspapers, Al-Mehwar and Shihan, have also published some of the drawings. Editors at both papers have been charged with criminal counts of blasphemy and inciting violence. Read CPJ’s alert on the Jordanian cases.