A recent episode of Comedy Central's animated comedy show "South Park" caused an Islamic group to send a veiled death threat to show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, accusing them of insulting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Comedy Central reacted by censoring a later episode that also had scenes involving the cartoon version of the Islamic prophet.
Two New York Times stories on this free speech issue by Arts reporter Dave Itzkoff were buried on the inside pages of the paper's Arts section, under whitewashed headlines alleging that the "South Park" creators were being "warned" by Muslims, not having their lives threatened.
The issue first came up in Thursday's "Arts, Briefly" column under the lame headline "Muslim Group Warns 'South Park.'" (A more accurate headline would have been "Muslim Group Sends Veiled Death Threat to 'South Park.'")
Itzkoff summarized the controversy:
An Islamic group based in New York said that a recent episode of "South Park," the satirical animated series, insulted the Prophet Muhammad, and compared the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, to Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker who was killed in 2004 by an Islamic militant, CNN reported.
When Comedy Central then bowed to pressure and censored the show's next episode with audio bleeps, Itzkoff ran a longer story Friday, though it too was relegated to page three of the Arts section under an incomplete headline: "'South Park' Episode Altered After Muslim Group's Warning."
The accompanying text box put the blame on the show's creators, not the group that issued the death threat: "At Comedy Central, reining in a show that pushes buttons."
"South Park," the Comedy Central series, is an animated show that tries its best to push buttons and the boundaries of free speech by mocking every high-profile target in sight, from Hollywood celebrities to religious figures. But its creators may have gotten more than they bargained for with two recent episodes that satirized the Prophet Muhammad -- one that elicited an ominous message from an Islamic group based in New York, and one that was censored by the cable network that shows it.
On April 14 Comedy Central broadcast the 200th episode of "South Park," a cartoon that Trey Parker and Matt Stone have produced for that channel since 1997. In honor of the occasion, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone populated the episode with nearly all the famous people their show has lampooned in its history, including celebrities like Tom Cruise and Barbra Streisand, as well as major religious figures, like Moses, Jesus and Buddha.
(Actually, South Park's latest episode featured Jesus Christ as a porn freak, according to NB's Lachlan Markay: "...in last night's episode Parker and Stone showed Buddha snorting cocaine, and vulgarly bickering with Jesus Christ, who, it is suggested, is a compulsive consumer of pornography. So while Comedy Central gave into demands the word Muhammed not even be mentioned, other prophets were portrayed in tremendously offensive ways.")
Cognizant that Islam forbids the depiction of its holiest prophet, Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker showed their "South Park" characters agonizing over how to bring Muhammad to their fictional Colorado town. At first the character said to be Muhammad is confined to a U-Haul trailer, and is heard speaking but is not shown. Later in the episode the character is let out of the trailer, dressed in a bear costume.
The next day the "South Park" episode was criticized by the group Revolution Muslim in a post at its Web site, revolutionmuslim.com. The post, written by a member named Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, said the episode "outright insulted" the prophet, adding: "We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid, and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them."
Mr. van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker and a critic of religions including Islam, was killed by an Islamic militant in Amsterdam in 2004 after he made a film that discussed the abuse of Muslim women in some Islamic societies.
...in 2006, when "South Park" wanted to weigh in on a controversy that erupted after Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, published cartoons satirizing Muhammad, it was not given the same latitude: a character said to be Muhammad was concealed behind a large black box labeled "CENSORED." The measure was taken by the "South Park" producers partly at the insistence of Comedy Central, and partly as a commentary on the network's policy of not allowing them to show the character, which the episode equated with giving in to the demands of extremists.
Yet while the Times respected the Muslim ban on images of Muhammad, it has no fear of dishonoring other religions.
In February 2006, after a Danish newspaper published cartoons mocking Muhammad, death threats were issued to the cartoonists and radical Muslims instigated rioting.
The Times not only failed to stick up for free speech by running the cartoons itself, it actually attacked news organizations that bravely did so, while pretending it was an issue of religious respect:
That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words."
But that excuse was revealed as bogus the very next day, when the paper ran a photo of painter Chris Ofili's controversial painting of a dung-clotted Virgin Mary.