#JeSuisCharlie gets little sympathy in Russia

People hold banners showing solidarity with those killed in an attack at the Paris offices of the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, outside the French Embassy in Moscow, Russia on 9 Jan 2015 Image copyright AP
Image caption Russia's show of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo has been fairly small

Russia's media watchdog has warned the country's press against publishing religious caricatures that could be deemed offensive.

Its statement was in response to widespread discussion following the attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo which satirised the Prophet Muhammad.

The ruling came on the same day that a court in Moscow sentenced a man to eight days in jail for staging an unsanctioned protest, by holding up a "Je suis Charlie" placard in the city centre.

Very few publications in Russia reprinted the French cartoons and many commentators - both Orthodox Christian and Muslim - have criticised them as insulting.

'Spitting in our faces'

Now the watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has made it clear that reproducing such satire here would be judged a criminal offence, reminding journalists that there are strict laws against "inciting religious hatred".

After Friday prayers in Moscow this week, people told the BBC they supported the ban - as much as 13% of Russia's population is Muslim.

"I am very opposed to those cartoons," one man, Abidin, said as he left the mosque.

"Look at everyone here. It is like they are spitting in our faces," he added, gesturing to the rows of men gathering up their prayer mats from the street.

"They fight for their rights, of course," said another mosque-goer, Ruslan, referring to the French cartoonists' insistence on free speech. "But they don't understand the depth of feeling among Muslims, the insult to our faith."

Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption Pussy Riot's protest in Moscow's main cathedral was also deemed religiously offensive

Russian Orthodox believers have been equally critical of the cartoons.

This week, the spokesman for the Orthodox Church underlined that terrorism was never justified. But he suggested that the #JeSuisCharlie campaign mistakenly placed the value of free speech over and above the feelings of believers.

This comes from the same Church that in 2012 backed a two-year prison sentence for the activists of Pussy Riot, who were charged with "hooliganism, fuelled by religious hatred" for staging a protest against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow's main cathedral.

Many church-goers justified the tough sentence by arguing that the girls' actions were deeply offensive.

$300 fine

But beyond religious sensibilities, this is a country with little instinct for defending free speech.

As well as the #JeSuisCharlie protester imprisoned on Friday, another was fined almost $300 (£198) for the same offence.

Perhaps that's why the Paris murders have particular resonance here for some.

They have been leaving flowers and messages of support outside the French Embassy in Moscow, ever since.

On Wednesday, the Union of Journalists held a minute's silence in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov has called a protest against Charlie Hebdo

They point out that Russia is one of the world's deadliest countries to be a journalist, so say there can be no qualifications when condemning the Paris murders.

"If people start to say, 'the killing is bad, but…' then you could say that about any journalistic activity," the union's secretary, Roman Serebryany, told the BBC.

"You can argue that someone should not have touched this, or that topic - that it is their own fault.

"I think in Russia, that is a very hot issue," he said, pointing out that more than 350 journalists have been killed here for doing their job, in the past two decades.

And yet, in that same Russian press, the overriding response to the Paris attack has been caution. Opinion columns explaining why Russians are not "Charlie" have far outnumbered those arguing the opposite.

And in Chechnya, one of Russia's Muslim republics, the Moscow-backed President Ramzan Kadyrov has called for a mass march of protest on Monday - not in support of free speech or against terrorism but against insults to Islam.

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