Thursday, December 21, 2006

Yemeni editor jailed for printing Danish cartoons

A Yemeni newspaper editor has begun serving a year in prison for reprinting the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The publication violated Article 103 of the 1990 Yemen Press and Publications Law. The court also ordered the Al-Ra'i al-Am independent weekly be closed for six months and forbade the editor Kamal al-Aalafi from writing for the same period. Al-Aalafi was sentenced on Friday. He declared he had published the cartoons in order to raise awareness and did not mean to insult the Muslim prophet. The editor told reporters the verdict "takes Yemen back to totalitarian rule, contradicts freedom of expression, and represents a real violation of democracy and freedom of the press."

The Yemeni decision was announced on the same day as Time Magazine announcements of its top ten cartoons of 2006. As well as obvious entries about the Plame enquiry, Mark Foley and a strange one about Zidane and Superman, one of the chosen ten is a cartoon about Danish cartoons which attempts to describe what happens when you mix cartoonists ink with Islamic religious beliefs.

Also this week, Scandinavian dairy group Arla Foods said the boycott of its products in the Middle East sparked by the Mohammed cartoons had cost the company about €53.6m this year. The boycott started in Saudi Arabia in January and spread through the Middle East and North Africa before a partial recovery in recent months. Arla is Europe’s second-largest dairy company and owned by about 10,000 Danish and Swedish co-operative members. Arla now believes most supermarkets in Muslim countries have ended the boycott after the company distanced itself from the cartoons.

The cartoons were first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (Jutlands Post) on 30 September 2005. It is an influential publication. Selling 150,000 copies, Jyllands-Posten is the largest-selling daily newspaper in Denmark The editor announced the item as part of a deliberate campaign to encourage debate on censorship and criticism of Islam. The newspaper invited 40 cartoonists to draw Mohammed as they saw fit. 12 responded with their drawings. However these cartoons encouraged more debate than the editor bargained for. The Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was burnt in effigy in dozens of cities across the world after the crisis escalated. He described the situation as Denmark’s worst international relations incident since the Second World War.

Muslim countries were immediately doubly outraged by the drawings. As well as not respecting the tradition of drawing Mohammed faceless or with a face veiled, they were angered by the sentiments of the cartoons that linked their faith’s holiest prophet with terrorism. Eleven ambassadors from Muslim counties asked for a meeting with Rasmussen in October to discuss the cartoons and other smears it felt Denmark was responsible for. The government refused to intervene. A Muslim organisation tried to take Jyllands-Posten to court but they were found to have committed no criminal offence. The court’s decision encouraged a group of Danish imams to issue a document decrying the cartoons. They followed this up with a tour of the Middle East outlining their position. Reaction was swift. The 57 nation-strong Organisation of the Islamic Conference, issued an official communiqué demanding that the United Nations impose international sanctions upon Denmark.

The situation escalated as several other European nations reprinted the cartoons. Islamic countries organised protests, burned Danish flags and boycotted Danish produce. At least 139 people were killed in demonstrations, mainly in Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Several of the cartoonists received death threats forcing them to go into hiding. An unintended side effect was the increase of Danish exports to the US with many Americans buying Danish products in response to the boycott. Sales of Bang & Olufsen stereos and Lego have helped Denmark’s exports to the US improve by 17% in early 2006.

The cartoons redrew the line of free speech and ripped open the fault line between Western and Muslim values. The issue of press freedom versus the responsibility to treat a religion with respect came sharply into focus. Most newspapers sat on the fence, deploring constraints on free speech a la Voltaire, but refusing to publish the cartoons for fear of creating a storm of opposition a la Allah.

Jyllands-Posten itself posted an apology on its website in January, saying it regretted offending Muslims, but stood by its decision to carry the cartoons. Danish Muslims demand a clearer apology, saying the one posted was "ambiguous." Finally in October this year a Danish court dismissed a defamation lawsuit brought by a group of Muslim organisations. But Danish law doesn’t apply to Yemeni publications. There, the show isn’t over until the fatwa loses its sting.

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