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Court's Outlawing Prophet Cartoons Seen as Threat to S. African Press Freedom


The South African Freedom of Expression Institute says a judgment by the Johannesburg High Court which prevents the publishing of cartoons found offensive by the Muslim community is a major threat to press freedom. The Freedom of Expression Institute argues that while the cartoon should not be published, that decision should be made by newspaper editors not the courts.

The Muslim Judicial Council applied to the High Court for an interdict to prevent two of South Africa's largest media houses publishing the offensive cartoons. The cartoons, which originally appeared in a Danish newspaper, have angered Muslim communities around the globe, sparking riots and protests in many countries.

The judge agreed with the Council's argument that the cartoons impinged on the constitutional rights of the Muslim community to dignity.

However the Freedom of Expression Institute says the ruling threatens press freedom in the country. Naeem Jeenah, who heads the Institute's program against censorship, argues that the right of editors to publish is fundamental to a strong democracy.

"We don't believe that editorial decision making should be placed in the hands of the court we think that that sets a very bad precedent that in fact that editors should have that kind of decision making power but to have the court deciding what newspapers can or can't publish before the newspapers even decide whether they are going to publish that we feel is quite problematic," he commented.

However Jeenah says with press freedom comes a responsibility not to incite violence and therefore the cartoons should not be published.

"We expect that editors exercise that decision making power in a manner that takes into consideration ethical concerns and within that context publication of cartoons that portray the leader of Muslims as a terrorist is in fact that incitement to violence and as I say it is less to do with freedom of expression and more to do with a hate speech issue," he added.

Meanwhile the Independent Media Group, one of the media houses involved in the case, has apologized for an article which appeared in the Cape Argus over the weekend. The article included quotes from Salman Rushdie's book, The Satanic Verses, which was also considered highly offensive by many Muslims when it was released.

The Independent says publishing the article was an error of judgment but said the apology does not impinge on freedom of the press.

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