Berlin defends Merkel speech at Mohammed cartoonist event

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Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman on Wednesday defended her decision to speak at an event where a Danish cartoonist who sparked Muslim anger with drawings of the Prophet Mohammed will win an award.

"The chancellor is sending out to all people in Germany, Muslims or not, the message that press freedom, which will be the focus of her speech, is a precious commodity," spokesman Steffen Seibert told a regular briefing.

Merkel "sees press freedom as a central pillar of our freedom in this country. This is her message."

The German chancellor, 56, was due to make the speech at a ceremony later on Wednesday in Potsdam, near Berlin, awarding Kurt Westergaard, 75, the M100 Media Prize 2010.

Westergaard drew the most controversial of 12 caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, first published in a Danish newspaper in 2005, with his turban depicted as a bomb with a lit fuse, deeply offending many Muslims.

The drawings sparked protests in January and February 2006 that culminated with the torching of Danish diplomatic offices in Damascus and Beirut and the death of dozens of people in Nigeria.

In 2008, around 20 Danish newspapers reproduced the drawings triggering further protests in Muslim countries including Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia.

In January a Somali man allegedly broke into Westergaard's home and threatened to kill him with an axe and a knife. In 2009 two men were arrested in Chicago allegedly with plans to attack his newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten.

The award is being given to Westergaard at the end of the sixth annual M100 Sanssouci Colloquium international media conference.

© 2010 AFP

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