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Mohammed Cartoons Likely Protected by German Law

Kyle James and Kristin ZeierFebruary 9, 2006

Germany's stance on Holocaust denial has been targeted by some Muslims in the current row over Mohammed caricatures. But experts said the pictures -- unlike Holocaust denial -- are likely protected under German law.

The cartoons may be disrespectful, but they are likely protected in GermanyImage: AP

"Most of Europe would not dare mock the Holocaust, and rightly so," Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain said in an interview, adding that the continent, however, would tolerate cartoons that were insulting to Islam.

"Some want to strike back and want to put Holocaust deniers in the same category," said Wolfgang Wippermann, a professor at the Freie University in Berlin who studies Nazism and right-wing extremism.

"But that is like comparing apples and oranges," he added. "The caricatures, whether good or bad, are a part of press freedom. The other side is a denial of historical fact that also has political aims."

Religious sensitivities vs. free speech

Udo Branahl, a professor of media law at the University of Dortmund, said that he had not seen all of the caricatures.

But the one which appears to have caused the most offense -- depicting Mohammed with a bomb in his turban -- would likely be protected by press freedom laws, he said. That's despite the fact that German law states that one cannot capriciously trample of the religious sensitivities of parts of the population.

Osama bin Laden
A caricature of Osama bin Laden would have upset fewer peopleImage: AP

"This caricature is obviously aimed at discrediting bombers who bomb in the name of Islam," he said. "The idea that bomb planting could be supported by the teachings of Mohammed is so absurd that it would be protected by the freedom of expression law."

But he adds there are limits, here as well. If the public peace would be disturbed, or it proven that the goal of the offending material was to insult a religion or a religious community, it could be a case for the justice system.

"If the caricature were, say, Mohammed as a pig, then I'm sure that it would be banned in Germany," he said.

Reporting or provocation?

While the verdict is still out as to whether or not the Mohammed cartoons violate German law, several complaints have been filed with the German Press Council, which monitors ethical violations in the media. According to managing director Lutz Tillmanns, individuals offended by the caricatures have a right to submit a complaint, which will then be reviewed by the Press Council's board of members.

Tillmanns refused to say how many complaints had actually been filed against the German reprint of the cartoons, but added that passing judgment on them fell within the responsibilities of the council, which defines and maintains the standards of the press in keeping with the framework of the German constitution. Last year, the press watchdog received 750 complaints, most of which focused on purported instances of libel and slander in the press. However, instances of discrimination and sensationalist reporting with the intent to provoke have also been recorded.

In illustrating the extent to which the council was justified in reprimanding the media, Tillmanns explained it was important to differentiate between reporting an issue and endorsing it for ulterior purposes. "One has to ask if the subject matter is presented as a quote with the intent of clarifying an issue for the reader or whether it is purporting a certain position," the lawyer said.

"It must clearly and unequivocally distance itself from a subject and not be a one-to-one sensationalist approach," he stated, but declined to say which case applied to the Mohammed caricatures.