Paper defends Muhammad dog cartoon

Leading figures in Sweden's media industry have backed newspaper Nerikes Allehanda, which has been criticised by Iran for publishing a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a dog. The paper itself has meanwhile defended its decision to publish.

PeO Wärring, deputy chairman of the Swedish Newspaper Publishers’ Association (TU), said that regardless of what people thought of the cartoons it was important that they could be published and debated.

“The strength of freedom of expression lies in the fact that it tolerates – and protects – not only comfortable, harmless and uncontroversial opinions, but also those that are tasteless, controversial, upsetting and offensive,” he said in a statement.

The cartoon in question, by Swedish artist Lars Vilks, depicted Muhammad’s head on the body of a dog. Vilks had found it hard to find a gallery willing to display his work, and Nerikes Allehanda published the cartoon alongside an editorial on freedom of expression.

A Swedish diplomat was summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Monday to receive a protest from the Iranian government about the cartoon.

Wärring said that TU fully supported Nerikes Allehanda, an Örebro-based regional paper. He also called on the Swedish government to stand up for Sweden’s tradition of press freedom, religious freedom and other forms of free expression.

Nerikes Allehanda on Tuesday published an English translation of the editorial by leader-writer Lars Ströman. In it, he argues that while a liberal society “must be able to defend Muslims’ right to freedom of religion and their right to build mosques,” it must also allow the ridicule of “Islam’s foremost symbols – just like all other religions’ symbols.”

Ströman told The Local on Tuesday that Nerikes Allehanda had decided to publish after a number of other papers had printed Vilks’ cartoons.

“I was a bit surprised by the reaction, as we were the last of a number of publications to publish the picture. I also think that the context in which we published should make it more acceptable for Muslims.”

He said he thought it strange that the Iranian government contacted the Swedish government about the matter, saying it could just as easily have contacted the newspaper itself.

The article, he said, points out “that the right to caricature a religion and the right to practice a religion are connected.”

“We at Nerikes Allehanda have a good record of defending Muslim rights in Sweden,” he added.

The initial reaction to the publication of the cartoon was positive, he said.

“In the first few days I just got one email from a Muslim who was a bit upset,” he said. On Friday, a protest was held in Örebro against the cartoon, but it was “very peaceful, and followed all the rules,”.

Ströman added that he did not feel that he was in physical danger after the Iranian action.