Profile in Courage: Journalist Mohammed al-Asaadi

When ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were injured in Iraq on January 29, the American media held vigil. The story received extensive coverage, possibly because Woodruff and Vogt are two of its own.

Commenting on the attention, American University profession Kathryn Montgomery said, “when you see the kind of coverage this story is getting it draws attention to the lack of coverage that hundreds of cases don’t get.” According to UPI, for example, the same week that Woodruff and Vogt were injured, 10 American service members were killed in Iraq.

While Woodruff and Vogt should be commended for their willingness to report from a war zone, especially in light of the number of journalists injured and killed during conflicts, there is another journalist sitting in a jail in Yemen who deserves our attention as well.

On February 11, Mohammed al-Asaadi, the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer, a weekly English-language newspaper, was arrested and charged with insulting the Prophet Muhammad. According to MSNBC:

…when his newspaper ran an article about the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, Asaadi decided to reprint the cartoons—albeit with a large X censoring most of them, and an article denouncing them….he was arrested and charged with insulting the Prophet.

Reporters Without Borders immediately requested the release of Asaadi and five other journalists who are currently in prison for having printed the now infamous cartoons.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Asaadi conducted by Newsweek’s Rod Nordland:

This is a different sort of case…Tell us how it came about.
When we ran our article on the Danish cartoons, it was all about how the Prophet should be honored, with quotations from famous people about what an important figure he was, and a news story on Yemeni protests. We reprinted the cartoons but blacked them out. Unfortunately by an innocent mistake in the production process, a thumbnail of the cartoons appeared on the front page—only 1.5cm [0.6 of an inch] by 2cm [0.8 of an inch], you could hardly read it. But then one of the directors of [the newspaper] al-Akhbar al Yawn approached the Yemen Observer owners to blackmail us—that unless we paid them they would raise a stink. We refused, and they collected signatures on a petition that they presented to the prosecutor. Theirs is a newspaper that lives by blackmail, everybody knows that.  But the government responded by revoking our license to publish and putting me in jail.

Do you regret now the decision to run the cartoons, however censored, given the climate?  There are plenty of religious fanatics in Yemen, even if they’re a minority.
We had a meeting to discuss this before we published them, so it wasn’t an accident.  And we felt that these cartoons had already been shown on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya [satellite TV] and millions of Muslims had seen them.  And I personally believe these cartoons should be published.  If we make it unlawful to look at them, we give them an importance they don’t deserve, as if there’s something holy or special about them. We should be able to discuss them openly, which is what we did.

The article as a whole discussed Islam and particularly the Prophet in reverential tones.  So why the government reaction?
Most of these extremists don’t read English, they just saw the pictures. And the article was accompanied by an editorial, saying the cartoons were terrible, but we should accept the apologies of the newspaper that published them and move on, not continue running through the streets.  That’s what really angered the [government] hard-liners.  Even religious scholars have supported us: it’s the intention behind the publication, not just the publication.

 

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