Islam Cartoon in Australian Student Paper Stirs Controversy

A cartoon satirizing Islam in an Australian student newspaper has triggered censorship, press coverage, and “a flurry of activity” in the land of Oz.

The faux infographic appeared on the backpage of a recent edition of Woroni, the campus paper at Australian National University.  According to editors, the Islam-focused illustration was “the fifth in a series that satirized facets of different religions; [also featuring] chronologically, Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism, and Judaism.”

Cartoon critics– including some international students– “condemned the piece as insulting and offensive to Islam and to religion in general.”

ANU officials meanwhile “felt that it actually breached the rules of the university in terms of student conduct and . . . the rules of at least the Australian Press Council principles to which Woroni abides.”  They were also at least slightly concerned about a violent response from individuals outside the campus community, along with it serving as a pinprick to the university’s standing as diversity-friendly.

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Amid these concerns, the ANU leadership has forced Woroni editors to publicly apologize and remove the page featuring the cartoon from the issue’s online archives. Hmm.

In addition, according to editors, “the Woroni board was twice summoned to [a top administrator’s office], individually threatened with disciplinary action along with the authors of the piece, and informed that Woroni’s funding allocation could be compromised.”  Double hmm.

A Woroni editor says it is the first time officials have adopted “such an active role in disciplining us and saying what we can and can’t publish.”

Three larger questions prompted by ANU officials’ actions and not-so-subtle threats: Should individual students ever be punished for the work of student media as a whole? How should admins. with limited or no journalism experience judge the actual and perceived inappropriateness of student press content?  And how and when– if ever– should they intervene in the editorial process?

An editor’s note in the Woroni: “Woroni regularly features material that is challenging, and even at times confronting.  By their very nature, universities are forums to critique ideas and beliefs. University newspapers– as a platform for students– should ideally reflect this role. . . . The editors hope that Woroni will continue to be a platform for discussion and criticism.  However, from this experience we have learnt the importance of balance and tact when dealing with highly sensitive issues.”

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