Islamic Bloc: We Respect Press Freedom But _

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Islamic Bloc: We Respect Press Freedom But _

( - A bloc representing the world's Islamic nations is marking World Press Freedom Day Wednesday by calling for urgent action to establish international law or a code of conduct aimed at preventing media from defaming religion.

The Saudi-based secretariat of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) said in a statement it was committed to press freedom, but that journalists should be deterred \ldblquote from premeditatedly vilifying, defaming and violating the rights of others."

Citing the controversy earlier this year over the printing of cartoons depicting Mohammed, the OIC said the publication of the sketches and its ramifications provided "absolute evidence of the consequences of non-abidance with these regulations."

It said the caricatures had insulted "a faith embraced and revered by over one-fifth of the world population, and a religion that advocates peace, tolerance and moral virtues."

Muslims around the world protested against the cartoons, which first appeared in a Danish newspaper six months ago and were later reproduced in numerous, mostly European media outlets. In some countries, protests turned violent, and people were killed in Nigeria, Libya and Afghanistan.

Authorities in some Islamic countries shut down newspapers and arrested journalists following the publication of some of the cartoons.

In Yemen, the editor of the Yemen Observer will mark World Press Freedom Day Wednesday by appearing in court, where prosecutors earlier called for the death sentence for insulting Islam.

Muhammad al-Asadi was arrested last February after his English-language weekly published the cartoons -- in thumbnail size and obscured with a thick, black cross -- to illustrate its news reports on the controversy.

Editors of two Arabic-language papers in Yemen are also on trial, and are due to appear in court later in May. Print editions of all three papers have been frozen for the past three months, although the government this week agreed to allow printing to resume.

Arrests or publication shutdowns resulting from the cartoons were also reported in Malaysia, Indonesia, Syria, India, Algeria, Morocco and Jordan, according to the media freedom lobby group, Reporters Without Borders.

In London this week, the OIC is hosting what it says is the first ever major international conference aimed at countering "Islamophobia," bringing together politicians, diplomats, scholars, media representatives and others from Western and Islamic countries.

Opening the event on Tuesday, OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said Muslims and their religion had been increasingly stereotyped, defamed, marginalized, discriminated against and targeted for "hate crimes" in the West since 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks in Madrid and London.

"In addition to the perceived biased Middle East policies of the U.S. and European countries, the rising trend of Islamophobia is giving a boost to the anti-Western sentiments in the Islamic world."

Ihsanoglu said the "terrifying stereotyping we suffer from in the first decade of the 21st century ... is a phenomenon that reminds us of the horrible experiences of the anti-Semitism of the 1930s."

It was unfortunate that in some circles in the West, Islam was considered a "dangerous ideology," he said.

"Misinterpretations of the events perpetrated by extremists in the Muslim world who in turn took 'Islam' as a cover, provided ammunition to the supporters of this fragile and misleading theory."

Of the Mohammed cartoons, Ihsanoglu said the OIC had been trying to explain that "nobody is actually challenging the freedom of expression and press and that the real issue is disrespect" for religious symbols and values.

He said the OIC had expected backing for its stance from European governments, but "to our dismay" those governments had instead supported Denmark.

'Negative image'

Also addressing the London conference, British foreign office minister Kim Howells said Muslims, and some non-Muslims, had been "rightly offended" by the publication of the cartoons.

But he also criticized some Islamic media for their handling of the issue, saying "the existence of anti-Western and anti-Jewish media and material in the Muslim world, some of it in state owned press, undermined as hypocritical the moral indignation that was expressed."

Howells said it was right that the issue of Islamophobia was addressed, but Islamic governments and organizations should also address problems that give Islam a negative image.

He cited support for Taliban-type legal and social systems, "recent statements coming out of Tehran," practices that segregate and subjugate women, and conspiracy theories about 9/11 being a CIA plot and polio vaccines being contaminated with viruses.

"And reports of raped women being punished and stoned, restrictions on other religions, including death sentences pronounced on Christian converts, poor human rights records and authoritarian, undemocratic environments all have a negative impact which we cannot ignore."

Howells also challenged views in the Islamic world that he said were wrong, such as the perception that "our foreign policy is deliberately anti-Muslim."

"The reasons for action in Afghanistan and Iraq had nothing to do with the faith of Islam but with the political and security issues that these countries posed."

He said the Islamic world had the right to criticize policies pursued by Britain, the U.S. or the European Union, "but continuing to blame the West for all the ills of the Muslim world is an act of self-denial."

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