LEAD: Malaysia daily apologizes over cartoon parody, escapes sanction
KUALA LUMPUR, Feb. 24 Kyodo
(EDS: UPDATING WITH PRIME MINISTER’S COMMENT THAT ISSUE SETTLED)
The New Straits Times, an influential English newspaper in Malaysia, averted a possible ban by apologizing ”unreservedly” Friday for publishing a comic strip parodying the controversy surrounding cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he considered the issue settled and no action will be taken against the newspaper.
The apology took up the entire front page of the daily’s Friday edition.
The Internal Security Ministry, headed by Abdullah, had earlier given the publishers of the New Straits Times three days to offer a reason why action should not be taken against the newspaper for publishing the ”inappropriate” cartoon.
”Obviously, we misjudged how different people would react to Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur syndicated cartoon published by the New Straits Times last Monday,” the newspaper said.
The cartoon showed a street cartoonist doing a sketch on a drawing board with a sign next to him saying ”Caricatures of Mohammad while you wait” and a caption saying, ”Kevin finally achieves his goal to be the most feared man in the world.”
Miller was training his well-known wry humor on the controversy surrounding the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad originally published in the Danish newspaper Jylland Posten last September that have outraged Muslims worldwide, sparking violent riots.
Two Malaysian newspapers had already had their publication licenses suspended for reprinting the Danish cartoons.
Malaysian media operate on licenses issued by the Internal Security Ministry that must be renewed annually, a practice that critics say is aimed at keeping the media under the government’s thumb.
The New Straits Times said the Non Sequitur cartoon was let through by its subeditor in charge, who deemed it ”inoffensive” as it bore no image of the prophet or words offensive to Islam.
But several Muslim groups and politicians including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad deemed otherwise.
Mahathir said the newspaper’s editor should be suspended for a few months for being ”insensitive” to the feelings of Muslims.
The government, he said, must take action against the newspaper to avoid being accused of a double standard after it banned the two other newspapers.
Some Muslim nongovernmental organizations and the opposition Pan Islamic Party (PAS) even filed a report to police over the cartoon Tuesday.
PAS also led a small demonstration in front of the newspaper’s headquarters in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur after the Friday Muslim prayers.
The NST had initially taken a defensive stance by again publishing the Miller’s cartoon Wednesday to accompany an editorial asking the readers and the authorities to judge for themselves whether the cartoon mocks Islam.
The apology came after senior editors were questioned by the government.
”In all humility, we accept the criticism leveled at the newspaper. We stand corrected. We should have been more sensitive, human error or not. So again, we apologize. And again, we will willingly accept any action deemed fit by the government,” the newspaper said.
Abdullah was satisfied with the apology.
”I am not taking any action,” official news agency Bernama quoted him saying from the northern Penang state. ”The issue is over because from the law aspect, it is not related to the caricature of the Prophet Mohammad.”
The Non Sequitur is syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate to over 700 newspapers worldwide. The New Straits Times, which is closely linked to the ruling United Malays National Organization headed by Abdullah, has a daily circulation of around 150,000.
The whole cartoon episode reflects the current tussle between those who want to test Abdullah’s pledge to give the media more freedom and others, especially politician, who believe the media has overstepped boundaries in its criticism of the government.
Parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang took the newspaper’s side.
”The government will be guilty of a double standard if UMNO-owned New Straits Times is allowed to get away scot-free, but three wrongs do not make it right,” he said.
Lim had disagreed with the suspension of the two other newspapers, calling the punishment ”excessive and disproportionate.”
Steven Gan, the editor of the award-winning online newspaper Malaysiakini, said the newspaper was right in publishing Miller’s cartoon and should not be penalized. He also offered his interpretation of Miller’s work.
”Let this be clear. The cartoon was not meant to mock the Prophet. It instead took a sarcastic swipe at the violent reaction to the caricatures. Put simply, Miller prodded us to ponder: ‘Why should we be afraid of one cartoonist?”’ he said.
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