The Malaysian government's decision to temporarily shut down a newspaper for printing a picture of Jesus smoking is a blow for free speech, opposition leaders and a media watchdog said Saturday.
Malaysia's Internal Security Ministry on Friday ordered the Makkal Osai daily to stop publishing for one month after a picture appeared this week showing Jesus Christ clutching a cigarette and what appeared to be a beer can.
The Tamil-language newspaper has insisted that it printed the picture by accident after a staff member failed to spot that Jesus was apparently smoking.
The suspension "will only create a very chilling effect on free expression and is not conducive to creating a vibrant media space," said Lim Kit Siang, an opposition politician with the Democratic Action Party.
He said the matter should have been allowed to rest as there was no malice intended and Christian leaders had accepted the paper's apology.
Media freedom watchdog the Centre for Independent Journalism called the government decision "unwarranted and high-handed".
"That a suspension order can be so swiftly imposed and despite the paper having apologized ... indicate continual disregard for freedom of the press and that alternative expression on religion must not be tolerated," they said.
The picture, published on Tuesday, was used to illustrate an article on the sayings of great leaders, and ran with the quote: "If someone repents for his mistakes, then heaven awaits them."
S.M. Periasamy, general manager of the paper, which caters to multicultural Malaysia's Indian community, said they would appeal the suspension.
Industry officials say one possible reason for the tough action could be because of the paper's criticism of the leadership of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), a leading member of the ruling National Front coalition.
Local press has reported that a MIC party member lodged a police complaint saying the picture threatened national harmony.
More than 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people are Muslim Malays and Islam is the country's official religion.
But the constitution guarantees freedom of religion for minority Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, although religious minority groups have recently expressed fear that their rights are being undermined.
Malaysia's media is largely state-linked and kept under tight control.