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Controversial Danish Cartoon Sparks Debate on Censorship, Press Freedoms

The violent outcry in the Muslim world over cartoon depictions of Islam's prophet is a reminder of the power - good and bad - of political cartoons.

The angry protests reflect the outrage over a perceived insult. But Walter Reich, an international studies professor at George Washington University who lectures on religious rights, says the protests also demonstrate the power of a simple black and white cartoon to stir emotions.

"Obviously it has great power because it simplifies and focuses the person who looks at it to see an image; a reality that the cartoonist wants to portray."

Political cartoons have used that power throughout history to provoke heated discourse, often by poking fun at serious issues. But some say the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten may have gone too far when it published cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Matthew Felling is with the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington DC. He says this is more a theological argument rather than political.

"We are, as Western citizens, very used to having our sacred cows slain on the political cartoons in the Washington Post everyday, and we appreciate that, but this is not a political argument per se as much as it is a theological argument."

Media analyst Felling says publishing the caricatures once was insensitive, but he says doing it again, as several publications across Europe did, was a provocation. "It just seemed like they were jabbing a stick in the eye of Islamists in the Middle East. Should they be allowed to do so? Yes, they should, but just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

But advocates of a free press say a democracy cannot survive long without freedom of expression. Dutch lawmaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a self-described Islamic dissident. "Shame on those papers and TV channels who lacked the courage to show their readers the caricatures in the "cartoon affair". These intellectuals live off free speech but they accept censorship."

But British lawmaker Sajjid Karim says the issue is not censorship but a lack of judgment. "What I find particularly disturbing is a lack of appreciation that such works would hand to a small pocket of extremists ammunition with which to fulfill their own agenda. This is where the judgment to publish and republish has failed us all."

But poor judgment is one thing; to hurt, threaten and kill in retaliation is another. Professor Reich says the violent protests reveal a medieval mindset in some segments of the Muslim culture that is intolerant of other viewpoints.

"This issue of tolerance is probably the most fundamental theme that emerges from this."

And from some media analysts, the idea of thoughtful restraint. Mr. Felling adds, making insulting comments may go too far. "You don't have to offend people to get the point across is what I'm saying."

Political cartoons -- whether they offend, inform or just make us laugh, their impact cannot be underestimated, as this controversy has demonstrated.