Indian newspaper charged over religious article

New York, February 13, 2009–Charges against the Calcutta-based editor and publisher of Indian newspaper The Statesman for republishing an article about religion from a British newspaper should be dropped, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

Police detained editor Ravindra Kumar and publisher Anand Sinha on Wednesday and charged them under the Indian Penal Code for “outraging religious feelings” following riots and complaints about the article by local Muslim groups. Rioters disrupted traffic and burned copies of the newspaper in protest outside its offices–located opposite Calcutta’s largest mosque–until police made the arrests, according to local and international news reports. The two men have been released on bail, according to the newspaper’s Web site. It is not clear when they will face trial or what are penalties might be.

The article, “Why should I respect these oppressive religions,” originally published in the London-based Independent newspaper on January 28, was reprinted in The Statesman on February 5. Independent columnist Johann Hari criticized recent steps by the U.N. to limit “defamation of religions”–at the instigation of religious hardliners, including Muslims and Christians, according to Hari.

“Journalists should not face criminal charges for published articles on any subject in a democratic, pluralistic society like India’s,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator. “We call for the charges against The Statesman representatives to be dropped immediately.” 

Hari characterized the Prophet Mohamed as a man who had sex with an underage girl and ordered a pogrom against Jews. He also wrote of Jesus: “I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead.”

Kumar apologized in statements for causing offense but stuck by the decision to reproduce the article, according to The Independent.The Statesman has always upheld secular values and has a record of providing space to all viewpoints, even contentious ones. If we were unable to fulfill this role, we would rather cease publication with honor than compromise our basic values,” he said, according to the report.

In a follow-up Independent column, a version of which was also published by The Huffington Post, Hari cited cases of journalists and Web users imprisoned for offending religious groups, including Parwez Kambakhsh in Afghanistan. “It would be a betrayal of them–and the tens of thousands of journalists like them–to apologize for what I wrote,” he said.