Prophet Cartoons: Editor Jailed, Fears Death

Mohammed al-Asaadi is an improbable martyr to a free press.  As the editor in chief of the generally pro-government Yemen Observer, a weekly English-language newspaper published by Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh's media adviser, al-Asaadi has not been party to the sort of controversies that have seen many Yemeni journalists jailed in recent years.  But 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.  On Feb. 11, he was arrested and charged with insulting the Prophet. He is now in jail in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, awaiting trial.  NEWSWEEK arranged for a visitor to take a cell phone to him today, and NEWSWEEK's  Rod Nordland interviewed him by phone.

NEWSWEEK: Is this your first time in jail?

Mohammed al-Asaadi: It's the first time ever I've been a prisoner, or even in front of a judge.

How are the accommodations?

I'm in a temporary prison, awaiting a hearing, so it's not so bad.  It's a basement, and we have to buy everything we need, even bottled water.  There are 15 of us sharing one big room and one toilet, but the others aren't common criminals.  A couple are journalists, because it's the prison of the prosecutor for press and publications.

You mean to say the government has a prosecutor dedicated to the press, and that prosecutor has a dedicated jail?

That is one of the characteristics of the Yemeni government, putting journalists in jail to stop us from telling the truth to the public.

This is a different sort of case though.  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 [another Yemeni newspaper] 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.

So your own colleagues instigated your arrest?  Isn't that a sad commentary on the press in Yemen?

Yes it is, but this isn't a legitimate newspaper.  It's an instrument of blackmail, any journalist in Yemen would tell you that. They're not even members of the journalists' guild.

Nonetheless, you're now being prosecuted for an offense with a possible life sentence. And some religious leaders, including some who are even members of the Yemeni Parliament, have called for your execution.  And the government says they're keeping you in prison in the meantime for your own protection.

I don't believe that for a moment.  Even if you were a Danish person you could walk the streets of Yemen safely, and I could too.  But people in the street are wiser than the government.

Your newspaper has been closely identified with the government, so is this the result of some sort of factional dispute within it?

The Yemen Observer has an independent line, and while it's true that our CEO is close to the government, when  he hired me he granted me complete editorial independence.  He had no say over what I published.

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.

How have you adjusted to imprisonment?  How's your family taking it? 

I've been very encouraged by all the support I've had from my colleagues, in Yemen and elsewhere, as well.  I have tens of visitors a day, so the jailers are very respectful.   It's boring, it's still a prison, but there's a lot of time to read and write, so that's good.  I asked my wife not to come, it would just be too upsetting for her.  And she's told my [three] daughters that I'm just on a trip, that I'll be home soon.  The oldest is only 5; it would be hard for them to understand why their father is in jail.

Your hearing is next Wednesday, when the judge will rule whether you should stand trial on these charges and whether you'll be freed.  Do you have much faith in the independence of the judiciary from the government?

I am hopeful the judge and prosecutor will realize there is no basis to bring this charge against me.  But no, the judiciary is not always independent. But I am optimistic, and I feel strong because of all the support I have.

Some hard-line preachers at Friday prayers called for your execution; some even suggested death by beheading or immolation.  Aren't you afraid for your future, in or out of jail?

Of course I'm afraid. I'll have to take precautions when I go to and from my office and travel around in the future. But  Yemenis as a whole are very moderate, and I know I can persuade any reasonable person that I did nothing wrong.  And I believe in God. What I did was in defense of the Prophet, and I don't think God will let me down for doing that.