A new cartoon and a new crisis

Russian flag x2Under the best of circumstances, Russia does not have a fabulous record when it comes to freedom of the press.

Nevertheless, the closing of the city-owned Gorodskiye Vesti newspaper in Volgograd has shocked many journalists who fight hard to protect press rights. This case study also offers a new twist in the widening cartoon crisis. It is clear that the editors intended this cartoon as a statement against racism and in favor of religious toleration.

Here is a piece of reporter Kim Murphy’s story in the Los Angeles Times, which ran with the headline “Russian Paper Ordered Closed Over Religious Cartoon.”

The cartoon was not part of the series, first published by a Danish newspaper last fall and since widely reprinted, that has led to violent protests in many parts of the Muslim world. The Russian illustration portrays Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Moses and Buddha gathered around a television screen showing two groups going into battle.

“We never taught them to do that,” the caption says.

Although newspapers have been shut down and editors fired in connection with the cartoon controversy in places as diverse as the middle East and Malaysia, the Russian newspaper appeared to be the first closure of a paper in a nation without a Muslim majority. Russia has about 20 million Muslims, about 15% of the population.

The New York Times’ report by Steven Lee Myers has another detail or two, including the fact that Moses is the speaker in the caption. It is also interesting to note that the image shows a clash between two groups of rioters. At the moment, the violent protests against the Danish cartoons have been one-sided. There have been some peaceful counter-demonstrators and, in some cases, authorities have cracked down on them rather than the crowds, or even mobs, protesting the cartoons.

“Well, we did not teach them that,” Moses says in a caption as the four watch a television set showing two groups confronting each other with banners and clubs and hurling stones. The cartoon appeared on Page 5, accompanying an article on an agreement signed by regional political parties and organizations to combat nationalism, xenophobia and religious conflicts.

Volgograd’s first deputy mayor, Andrei O. Doronin, announced the closing of the newspaper, Gorodskiye Vesti, or City News, “in order not to inflame ethnic hostilities,” according to the official Russian Information Agency. He gave the newspaper a month to liquidate its assets, leaving the fate of its staff unclear.

“Ethnic hostilities”? Is that the theme here?

It could be that the closure of this newspaper is rooted in local politics, as much or more than in global tensions. But there is no positive spin to put on this story. Shutting down a newspaper or a broadcast station is a radical act, no matter where it takes place. After all, no one expected to see governments flinch in Europe, either.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://blog.americanpapist.com AmericanPapist

    A line from The Bridge Over the River Kwai comes to mind:

    “Madness.”

  • http://www.psonnets.org/ Michael Rew

    tmatt: Have you analyzed how certain rhetoric may affect Christians indirectly? Shortly after Pat Robertson infamous comments about the potential assassination of Hugo Chavez of Venezuala, Chavez ordered New Tribes missionaries out of the country because they were using their activities as a cover to prospect for precious minerals and provide military intelligence for the US, Chavez said. Pat Robertson also came under fire years ago when he used Operation Blessing resources to mine diamonds in Zaire and gold in Liberia. Is it a coincidence, then, that Chavez accuses American missionaries of spying and prospecting?

    Now Christians are being killed in Nigeria in riots over the Muhammed religious cartoons. (Like radical Muslims need a reason to kill Christians.)

  • Scott Allen

    TMATT, did you see today’s OpinionJournal article on Rod Dreher? The author states that “…consumerism and conservatism are, for him [Dreher], incompatible, a fact that mainstream conservatives, he says, simply do not grasp.” I think Dreher is the one with the “grasping” problem. He is obviously not an economic conservative — I may not like strip malls and such, either, but I believe in free choice. According to the article, only Rod Dreher’s “countercultural” priorities are truly conservative. Wow. Welcome to the communalistic world where you must share Rod’s vision to be a conservative. May I suggest that Rod use his talents to come up with a new name (other than the modifier “crunchy”) to describe his movement, instead of stealing the term “conservative.” And please quit describing him as a social or economic conservative when he is obviously neither.

  • Tom Breen

    Speaking of ghosts and free speech stories, does anyone see the ghost lurking in the story about David Irving’s prison sentence? Where are all the defenders of free speech who appeared during the Danish cartoon controversy? Does Irving not have the same freedom of speech that the Danish newspaper has? Are some more free than others here in the West?

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