S.Africa court bars Mohammad cartoons

Johannesburg, South Africa - A South African court has granted a request by a Muslim group to bar publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad which have caused outrage among Muslims worldwide, an editor's group said on Saturday.

The South African National Editor's Forum (SANEF) said the judge's order covered most major media companies in the country and amounted to "pre-publication censorship" by the court.

"Freedom to decide what gets into the publication has been taken away from the editor and put on the shoulders of the court," SANEF Chairman Joe Thloloe said.

The Sunday Times newspaper, one of those covered by the ruling, said it had not decided whether to publish the cartoons but had refused a request by the Council of Muslim Theologians to promise not to use the images.

The Council then approached the court for the temporary restraining order, which was granted late on Friday.

A spokesman for the Council could not be reached for comment on Saturday. But the group issued a statement saying the cartoons, which originally appeared in a Danish newspaper and have been reprinted by other European media, "demonstrated contempt for the religious beliefs of the Muslim community."

"These publications have abused freedom of speech by taking it to a dangerous, irresponsible and unacceptable level by showing disregard for the sensitivities of Muslims around the world," the statement said.

Sunday Times Editor Mondli Makhanya said the newspaper would go to court to fight the order, which he called a serious blow to freedom of the press in South Africa.

"We are aware of the sensitivities regarding the cartoons, and the editorial team was discussing whether these sensitivities should be given more weight than the right of non-Muslim readers to see the depictions that had caused huge offence in other parts of the world," Makhanya said in a statement.

"We believe that if we were to have given an undertaking not to publish, we would invite similar demands and threats from anyone who felt offended by the stories we publish."

Thloloe said the court's ruling was apparently based on a section in South Africa's post-apartheid constitution which allows limits on speech deemed to advocate hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion.

"The editors of the publications that were gagged are aware of the law and the limitations the Constitution has placed on freedom of expression and would respect those," he said.

"It is not for the courts to assume that the law is going to be broken and make the decision for editors."

The editor of South Africa's weekly Mail and Guardian newspaper, which published one of the disputed cartoons in its edition that came out on Friday, said she was surprised by the furor over the issue.

"I don't think they are brilliant cartoons, I don't think they make a great play for freedom of expression and I didn't know they would cause the offence and harm that they did. I thought that we lived in a more liberal and freedom-loving society," Ferial Haffajee told SABC radio.