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Indigo pulls controversial Harper's off the shelves

Globe and Mail Update

Canada's largest retail bookseller has removed all copies of the June issue of Harper's Magazine from its 260 stores, claiming an article by New York cartoonist Art Spiegelman could foment protests similar to those that occurred this year in reaction to the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

Indigo Books and Music took the action this week when its executives noticed that the 10-page Harper's article, titled Drawing Blood, reproduced all 12 cartoons first published last September by Jyllands-Posten (The Morning Newspaper).

The article also contains five cartoons, including one by Mr. Spiegelman and two by Israelis, “inspired” by an Iranian newspaper's call in February for an international Holocaust cartoon contest “to test the limits of Western tolerance of free speech.”

It's unclear what part, if any, the five cartoons played in the Indigo ban; phone calls to its Toronto headquarters were not returned yesterday. In 2001, Indigo founder and CEO Heather Reisman ordered all copies of Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf pulled from stores, describing the book as “hate literature.” Two years later, she helped found the powerful lobby group the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy.

In a memo obtained by The Globe and Mail that was e-mailed to Indigo managers yesterday about “what to do if customers question Indigo's censorship” of Harper's, employees are told to say that “the decision was made based on the fact that the content about to be published has been known to ignite demonstrations around the world. Indigo [and its subsidiaries] Chapters and Coles will not carry this particular issue of the magazine but will continue to carry other issues of this publication in the future.”

Indigo normally carries as many as 3,000 copies each month of Harper's, about 11 per cent of the New York magazine's total retail distribution in Canada, according to a Harper's circulations manager.

Harper's publisher John MacArthur said he was “genuinely shocked” by Indigo's action, in part because two large U.S. chains, Borders and Waldenbooks, are selling the issue.

(Three months ago, both chains yanked a small U.S. publication, Free Inquiry, when it reproduced four of the Danish cartoons. That Free Inquiry issue with the cartoons is currently on sale at Indigo.)

“I'd expect an American company to do this, not a Canadian,” Mr. MacArthur said yesterday. “Even though you have tougher libel laws than us and your own versions of political correctness, to my mind [Canada] has always been a freer place for political discourse.”

The U.S. news media have become “terribly prone to self-censorship,” especially after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he said. “There's a more wide open debate [in Canada] than in America.”

Mr. MacArthur said Harper's decided to publish the Spiegelman article because “we really wanted to expand the conversation” about the role of cartoons and the contours of free expression and not just to say, ‘So there.'” In the article, Mr. Spiegelman — perhaps best known as the creator of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Holocaust cartoon Maus — rates each of the 12 Mohammed cartoons on a scale of 1 to 4 “fatwa bombs,” and also includes several scabrous cartoons from the 19th and 20th centuries.The Jyllands-Posten publication offended many Muslims, who believe any imagery of the Prophet Mohammed to be idolatrous and blasphemous, and sparked a world-wide debate over the rights and limits of free speech.

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