MONTREAL — A Montreal-area weekly newspaper has removed an editorial cartoon from its website depicting Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard stoning a former Muslim colleague.
The work shows Couillard dressed in a djellaba, a long robe worn in North Africa, lobbing stones at Fatima Houda-Pepin while saying "Happy Birthday, Fatima!" to mark International Women's Day last week.
Couillard said his office signalled to the owners of Le Courrier du Sud last Friday he found the cartoon to be in poor taste, but the premier insisted Monday there was no request for it to be removed.
When asked by a reporter why he was so offended by the cartoon, Couillard said it depicts murder.
"Do you believe that's OK? I'll leave it up to each citizen to make their own judgment," Couillard said.
The cartoon was published in print and digital formats last week but was later removed from the weekly newspaper's website.
Jean-Marc Phaneuf, the longtime cartoonist behind the work, said he sees nothing controversial about it and believes Couillard is going too far by saying it shows a slaying.
"I find it distressing for freedom of the press," Phaneuf told The Canadian Press. "We're talking about political ideals and we have a premier whose office is offended and wants to muzzle people who criticize them in the same way they muzzled a woman who tried to criticize them."
The outspoken Houda-Pepin is a former Liberal who was ejected from caucus in 2014 after feuding with Couillard and the party over what she felt was a weak stance on identity issues.
Just last month, Houda-Pepin, now a consultant and newspaper columnist, called out the Couillard government for what she described as a restrained approach to dealing with identity and language.
Phaneuf said he believes Houda-Pepin was the person who best represented women by standing up to Couillard, a move that led to her expulsion from the Liberal caucus after two decades in provincial politics.
"Each time cartoonists express themselves about something, they can't create unanimity," Phaneuf said. "There are always those who will approve ... and others who will contest. It's normal, it's an opinion."
TC Transcontinental Inc., which owns the newspaper, said it reviewed the image upon receiving a complaint from the premier's office and "deemed it to be offensive and in poor taste" in deciding to remove it online. A print run with the cartoon was distributed last Wednesday.
"TC Transcontinental is an organization which respects both the fundamental right of freedom of expression and community standards," the company said in a statement Monday.
For his part, Couillard said he believes in freedom of expression but cautioned that exercising good judgment is part and parcel of that.
"I've already said that freedom of expression will allow us to see good things and bad things, and it's up to people to decide and exercise their judgment," Couillard said. "Freedom of expression also necessitates maintaining judgment."
Parti Quebecois Leader Jean-Francois Lisee accused Couillard of censorship.
He noted the premier's public criticism also came as lawmakers are discussing a bill that would no longer oblige municipalities to publish public notices in local papers, denying them significant funds.
Lisee said the PQ has found itself the object of plenty of questionable cartoons over the years and that it has never once asked for a retraction.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press