Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) today called on the governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh to lift the bans they have imposed on the latest issue of the US news magazine Newsweek because of an article on a German academic’s research into the origins of the holy Koran.
"Repeated bans on international magazines on account of articles on Islam constitute a flagrant violation of the free flow of information," Reporters Without Borders said in letters to Pakistani information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad and Bangladeshi information minister Tariqul Islam.
The organisation urged the two officials to do every possible to get this issue of Newsweek out to subscribers and on to the news stands in their countries, and to ensure that all foreign publications are henceforth distributed without prior control by the authorities.
The Pakistani information minister announced on 24 July that the customs department had been given orders to seize all copies of the 28 July issue of Newsweek because of an article entitled "Challenging the Qur’an" (Qur’an is an alternative way of spelling Islam’s sacred book in English). The Pakistani authorities said the article insulted the Koran and could cause disturbances.
The article reported that a German linguist believes the Koran may have originally been written in Aramaic instead of Arabic and that this would explain a number of errors of interpretation about the veil, the reward given to martyrs and even the origin of the Koran itself.
Following its appearance, Newsweek’s stringer in Peshawar (the capital of North West Frontier Province) fled the city for fear of reprisals.
Newsweek’s distributor in Pakistan was already forced to suspend distribution in September 2001 over an article by a Pakistani university professor that was accused of being blasphemous. The customs department checks the content of all foreign publications on arrival in Pakistan and if an article is considered contrary to Pakistani law, it is referred to the press information department.
The Bangladeshi ban on the "sale and distribution" of Newsweek’s latest issue was imposed on 28 July. The authorities said the article on the Koran could "hurt the religious sentiments of the country’s Muslims."
In April 2002, the Bangladeshi authorities banned an issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review about the growing strength of Islamist groups in Bangladesh. Two months prior to that, they banned an issue of Newsweek because it published a representation of the Prophet Muhammad. An issue of Newsweek with an article on Islam was also banned in Bangladesh in September 2002.
The article "Challenging the Qur’an" is available at the Newsweek website: www.msnbc.com/news/940974.asp