updated 2/23/2006 9:29:50 PM ET 2006-02-24T02:29:50

A prominent Malaysian daily, under fire for publishing a cartoon about the Prophet Muhammad drawings controversy, apologized Friday, saying it had misjudged public opinion.

"We apologize. Unreservedly," the New Straits Times, a government-linked English daily and one of the oldest in Southeast Asia, said in a front-page notice in thick letters.

"Obviously, we misjudged how different people would react" to the “Non Sequitur” strip by syndicated U.S. cartoonist Wiley Miller that it published on Monday, and again on Wednesday.

The newspaper will abide by "any action" the government takes against it and its executives, the notice said. "In all humility, we accept the criticism.... We stand corrected. We should have been more sensitive — human error or not. So again, we apologize."

The cartoon did not show Islam's prophet but irked many Muslim groups who said it mocked Islam and the prophet. The government of this Muslim-majority country then asked the New Straits Times to give reasons by Sunday why it should not be punished, which could include suspending its license.

All newspapers in Malaysia operate under an annually renewable government permit.

The Internal Security Ministry on Wednesday questioned the chief editor and the chief executive of the newspaper. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said Thursday he will decide on the action against the Times, the country's second largest English-daily, after receiving a report from the ministry.

Press freedom issues arise
The severe government reprimand has raised questions about the freedom of the Malaysian press, and its limits and responsibilities, especially when it comes to religion in this Malay Muslim-majority country.

The Times' involvement lends a sharper edge to the debate because the newspaper is seen as the voice of the mainstream Malays, and is controlled by the United Malays National Organization, the biggest party in the ruling coalition.

The government has already suspended the licenses of two local newspapers for printing a photograph showing the original Danish cartoons that have stirred anger across the Muslim world and sparked violent protests that have left more than 50 people dead.

Depicting Islam's prophet in drawings or any physical form is considered blasphemous by Muslims.

Caricatures of Muhammad While You Wait!’
The Non Sequitur cartoon was published because it bore no caricature of the prophet nor words offensive to Islam, said the New Straits Times in its defense, adding that it was simply "wry humor" by an artist whose work is syndicated in more than 700 newspapers around the world.

The cartoon showed an artist sitting on a chair on a street with a sign next to him saying: "Caricatures of Muhammad While You Wait!" A caption alongside reads: "Kevin finally achieves his goal to be the most feared man in the world ..."

The controversy is the latest in the run-ins between the Times and members of the ruling party, who feel that the paper has become too bold in criticizing the government.

Malaysia's government has dealt harshly with its own newspapers when it sees them stepping out of line. The Star, the country's biggest daily, was suspended for a few months in 1987 for publishing political articles that the government said were prejudicial to national security. The Star is owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association, the second biggest component of the ruling coalition.

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