SOUTH AFRICA: Newspapers barred from publishing Prophet Muhammad cartoons
Court interdict a blow to media freedom, says MISA. Islamic group calls for media to act responsibly
johannesburg, 6 February 2006 (IRIN) - A South African newspaper is set to challenge a court interdict barring the publication of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, initially printed in Denmark, that have caused angry protests in countries around the world.
On Friday a Muslim group obtained an interim interdict barring Sunday newspapers from reprinting the cartoons. South Africa's largest newspaper, the Sunday Times, said in a statement that the interdict "pre-empted a decision the newspaper had not yet made".
The Sunday Times had "opposed the urgent interdict on the grounds that it would not be held to ransom by pressure groups. We are aware of the sensitivities regarding the cartoons, and the editorial team was discussing whether these sensitivities should be given more weight than the right of non-Muslim readers to see the depictions that had caused huge offence in other parts of the world", the paper said.
"But before we came to a conclusion, we were threatened with the interdict by the Jamiatul Ulama of Transvaal [a council of Muslim theologians]. We declined to give an undertaking not to publish the cartoons, not because we were intent on publishing them, but because we strongly oppose the attempt by any group to edit or censor the newspaper," the Sunday Times explained.
Had it given an undertaking not to publish, the paper noted, "we would invite similar demands and threats from anyone who felt offended by the stories we publish". It said no "credible newspaper can be held to ransom by the beliefs of a section of the population", as a free press was "obliged to reflect the world that we live in - not just part of it".
The right to publish without fear or favour was enshrined in South Africa's constitution and fundamental to robust democracy, the paper pointed out.
However, the Johannesburg High Court granted the Jamiatul Ulama an interim court order interdicting the Sunday Times and other newspapers from publishing the offending cartoons, ruling that the right to dignity outweighed the right to freedom of expression in this case.
The Sunday Times said it had "every intention of challenging the ruling when the matter returns to court" later this month.
A Jamiatul Ulama spokesman was unavailable for comment on Monday, but a statement on the group's website said the publication of the cartoons in European papers was an abuse of freedom of speech. "The Muslim community views the publications of such offensive material as a serious attack on the integrity of their religion," it added.
The Jamiatul Ulama called on the media to "act responsibly ... and not to push the right to freedom of expression to ridiculous levels, where the lines of distinction between profound and profane are virtually obliterated".
"We urge the media that, just as they tread very cautiously in issues that are perceived as 'anti-semitic', a similar circumspection needs to be extended to sensitivities of other religious communities as well," the organisation said.
The recent violent protests triggered by the publication of the cartoons in European newspapers were also condemned. "The Jamiatul Ulama calls upon the Muslim community to register their protest respecting law and order, and not to act irresponsibly, for that is not what the Holy Prophet, peace be upon Him, would have approved," the group added.
Raymond Louw, of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), told IRIN the pre-emptive court interdict was a "calamitous" blow to freedom of the press. He said the judgement, should it stand, could have "serious effects on the rights of freedom of the press and expression contained in the constitution".
"This means that anyone who feels a newspaper may publish something that harms his dignity, or may damage him somehow, can go to the courts and get an interdict preventing them from publishing it," Louw noted.
MISA, along with other advocacy and rights groups, would consider joining the challenge of the order by the Sunday Times as amicus curae when the matter returned to court.