Jordan, Yemen, Algeria Must Free Journalists
February 16, 2006
We reject the disrespectful and prejudiced attitudes reflected in the cartoons, but governments are not entitled to imprison journalists simply because their publications are seen as offensive or disrespectful of religion.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch

The governments of Jordan, Yemen and Algeria should immediately drop criminal charges against editors and journalists who reproduced controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in their publications, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also called on Yemen, Algeria and Malaysia to immediately lift bans on newspapers closed in recent days for printing the caricatures.

Human Rights Watch recognizes that many Muslims regard the caricatures, initially published in September in a Danish newspaper, as violating a prohibition against depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and as constituting gross insults against their faith. But governments should not prohibit or punish expression except in instances where it poses an imminent threat of violence, harassment or discrimination against a group or individual. The publication and re-publication of these caricatures does not meet this test. The relevant international standards are detailed in a Human Rights Watch paper, “When Speech Offends: Questions and Answers on the Danish Cartoons.”

“We reject the disrespectful and prejudiced attitudes reflected in the cartoons, but governments are not entitled to imprison journalists simply because their publications are seen as offensive or disrespectful of religion,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

On January 26 and February 2, two Jordanian weeklies, al-Mihwar and Shihan, respectively, published the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that first appeared in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005. The Jordanian editors said that their intent was to show that the cartoons were silly and thereby to calm, not provoke, popular anger. They denied any intent to promote hatred of Muslims.

The owner of Shihan subsequently fired his editor, Jihad al-Mu’mani. On February 4, Jordanian authorities arrested al-Mu’mani and Hashim al-Khalidi, editor of Mehwar, and charged them with violating Article 278 of the penal code. Article 278 prohibits publishing “anything in print or writing or a picture or drawing or symbol that leads to an insult of the religious feelings of other persons or their religious faith.”

On February 6, Jordanian authorities filed additional Press and Publications Law charges against the editors. Article 5 of that law “prohibits [the media] from publishing anything that... contradicts the values of the Arab and Islamic nation,” and Article 7 “prohibits the publication of anything that might incite sectarianism among the citizens in any form.” The editors were released on bail on February 12, but are scheduled to appear in court later this week.

On February 9, the Malaysian cabinet ordered the indefinite suspension of a regional daily, Sarawak Tribune, which had reprinted the cartoons on February 4. Malaysian authorities also have declared it an offense for anyone to publish, produce, import, circulate or possess the caricatures. Though protests against the caricatures in Malaysia have been peaceful, officials said that the paper had been insensitive and irresponsible and had contributed to public disorder. The paper fired the editor who had run the caricatures.

Yemeni authorities have also reacted to the caricatures with drastic measures. In recent days, the Yemeni government has closed three newspapers and detained at least three journalists for republishing the caricatures. According to Yemeni officials, the detained are Mohammad al-Asaadi, the editor-in-chief of the English-language Yemen Observer, `Abd al-Karim Sabra, the managing editor of al-Hurriya weekly newspaper, and reporter Yehiya al-Abed of al-Hurriya. The prosecution has issued a warrant for Kamal al-Aalafi, the editor-in-chief of al-Rai al-Aam.

In Yemen, the journalists reportedly are being charged with violation of article 103 (a) of the Press and Publications Law number 25 of 1990, which prohibits “publications that harm the Islamic faith and its sublime principles or that degrade the Semitic religions, and humanitarian beliefs.” The Yemeni Ministry of Information reportedly has revoked the licenses of all three publications.

In Algeria, authorities reportedly have closed two newspapers and arrested their editors for printing the cartoons. Kamel Bousaad, director of Panorama weekly newspaper, was arrested on February 8 and Berkane Bouderbala, editor of the weekly Essafir and its weekly religious supplement Arrisala was arrested on February 11. Both publications have been closed.

Under international human rights law, freedom of expression may be limited to protect public safety and the rights of others, but such limitations must be strictly “necessary” in a democratic society. Blasphemy and similar laws curtailing free speech are frequently vaguely worded, allowing governments to interpret them as they wish. Speech that targets a religion for disrespect, as opposed to speech that incites unlawful acts against believers, should be protected, however offensive it may be.