Under 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.