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IPI protests jailing of cartoonist and suspension of publication of satirical weekly

(IPI/IFEX) - The following is an IPI press release:

Vienna, 25 September 2007

In a 25 September letter to Fakhruddin Ahmed, head of the Bangladesh interim government, the International Press Institute (IPI), the global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists in over 120 countries, expressed concern at the jailing of a freelance journalist and cartoonist in Bangladesh and the suspension of the satirical magazine Aalpin.

On 17 September, Aalpin, a weekly magazine of the leading Bengali daily Prothom Alo, published a cartoon showing a small boy calling his cat "Mohammad Biral" ("Mohammad Cat"). The cartoon triggered protests by the Muslim community in Bangladesh. Islamists and Imams from different mosques called for a street protest against the cartoon, stating that it was a deliberate attempt to ridicule Islam's Prophet Mohammad and harm the sentiment of devout Muslims. On 19 September, police broke up a street march by hundreds of Islamists in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka, who were demanding "death to the Prothom Alo editor" and "hang the cartoonist."

The publication of the cartoon and the consequent protests led to the arrest of the cartoonist, Arifur Rahman, on 18 September, for deliberately insulting Islam and seeking to provoke violence and disrupt peace in the country. On 19 September, Rahman was sent to Dhaka Central Jail for 30 days. The authorities have also requested of Aalpin that he suspend publication until the matter is resolved.

Apologising for the cartoon, the publishers of the Prothom Alo have announced that they will no longer publish any of Rahman's articles or cartoons. The publishers have also dismissed a sub-editor in connection with the cartoon. On 20 September, the editors of different Bangladeshi newspapers issued a joint statement urging the country's Islamic clerics to accept Prothom Alo's apology.

While Moulana Obaidul Haque, Khatib ("head preacher") of Dhaka's Baitul Mokarram Mosque, has urged Muslims to consider the apology and to refrain from pursuing the issue, the Bangladeshi government has given the publishers of Prothom Alo two weeks to explain, "Why, in this circumstance, the magazine [. . .] shall not be banned and legal action not be taken against the publishers," according to a statement issued shortly after the cartoon was published.

In the letter, IPI's director Johann P. Fritz reminded Fakhruddin Ahmed said that "the state of emergency imposed in January after the cancellation of the general election is not an excuse to restrict press freedom." Fritz also pointed out that "with a general election planned for the end of 2008, it is vital that the country's citizens have access to information and that the media is free to report facts and express opinions."

IPI urged Bangladesh's caretaker administration to immediately free cartoonist Arifur Rahman, to allow publication of the satirical weekly Aalpin and to lift the state of emergency. "By doing so, the caretaker government will be fulfilling its responsibility to create a democratic climate for the forthcoming election," Fritz said.

IPI's letter to Fakhruddin Ahmed, Honourable Chief Adviser, Head of the Caretaker Government of Bangladesh, is available on IPI's website at: http://www.freemedia.at

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