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Monday, March 24, 2014

Belgian Paper Apologizes Over Racist Images of Obama Used in Satire

The Belgian newspaper De Morgen apologized on Monday to readers offended by a satirical feature published two days earlier that used racist images of President Obama mocking his strained relationship with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.

The editors of the Flemish daily explained that the premise of their “admittedly tasteless joke” was that the Russian president had submitted an op-ed article about Mr. Obama that featured two racist caricatures â€" one photograph captioned to suggest that the first African-American president of the United States was a drug dealer, and a second, digitally altered, to give the president and Michelle Obama the faces of apes.

According to a partial translation of the Morgen editorial from the Belgian state broadcaster VRT, the editors argued that their mistake was in assuming that the context of the images, in a regular satirical section of the paper, would make it clear to readers that no offense was intended, but when the images circulated online that context was lost. When “you consider the fragment apart from its context, which is a properly worked out satirical section, then you don’t see the joke but just a picture evoking sheer racism,” the editors wrote. “That was a risk we didn’t consider enough beforehand.”

“We wrongly assumed,” they added, “that racism is no longer acceptable, and that in this way it could be the subject of a joke.” The editors went on to suggest that they had overlooked the fact that the racist trope of comparing African-Americans to apes is still common.

Absolving themselves of the charge of harboring racist intentions, the editors concluded with an apology to anyone who was offended. “In this case, we plead guilty of bad taste,” they said. “We continue to be on the side of those that are battling any form of racism.”

The newspaper also suggested that the backlash to its failed satire was stronger outside Belgium because racism is more of a problem in other countries, including in the Netherlands, where the news site Joop published a copy of the full-page satire, showing the fictional Putin op-ed article beneath a stream of fictional tweets from Mr. Obama in Flemish.

Chika Unigwe, a Nigerian-born writer who lives in Belgium and had drawn attention to the image on Twitter, was unimpressed by the apology.

Follow Robert Mackey on Twitter @robertmackey.