De Morgen, a Belgian newspaper, found itself in the middle of a firestorm over the weekend after it ran an image depicting President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama as apes just days before Mr. Obama is scheduled to visit the country.

The startling picture, which De Morgen says was satire, also called the President a drug dealer, with the tagline: “First Black President of The USA Starts Selling Weed.”

The photo was first tweeted by Nigerian-Belgian journalist Chika Unigwe and quickly made the rounds on social media. Unigwe called the image a “shame” and wondered, “Why did De Morgen publish this? In the 21st century?”

The deeply problematic image was apart of De Morgen’s weekly “Daily Herald” edition, which typically includes satirical articles that poke fun at the week’s news. The latest issue was dubbed “The Obama Herald,” and was dedicated to the President ahead of his visit to the nation.


De Morgen’s editors also wrote Russian President Vladimir Putin into the tasteless “joke,” claiming he submitted the doctored image of the Obamas to the paper “because he didn’t have a lot of time” to write a proper article instead.

Many have accused the paper of being racist, but De Morgen contends the image was meant as a Putin diss, not as an attack on the Obamas’ race.

In an op-ed for the Belgian paper, Bart Eeckhout writes that while the photo may have started out as a jab at Putin by way of the Obamas, in order for it to be funny “the joke has to work,” but this one falls flat.

Eeckhout writes:

(Note: the article was originally written in Dutch; the following is an awkwardly translated excerpt via Google Translate)

Domestically, the tone remains calm. Because Belgians / Flemings simply sneak all racists? Or because many believe that De Morgen, still known for its unsuspected anti-racist position has not changed, but a moment of bad taste? The second explanation sounds plausible.

He continues:

It is intended as an absurd joke to make [a person] into a monkey, but a black president to light here forget that, especially in the U.S., the shameful equality between blacks and apes still regularly pops up. And then it’s not meant to laugh. It makes it very understandable that some people feel hurt by the attempted satire in the newspaper. Laughter continues with racism, as it turns out now, a thin line.

This is not even about free speech, but good taste. Precisely at a time when the Dutch politician Geert Wilders goes beyond serious racist provocations, this theme is also more sensitive. Partly explains why the failed Obama joke too much provokes strong reactions from the Netherlands. De Morgen offers its apologies to anyone who feels offended by the relevant passage in the newspaper. Sorry. We argue in this case guilty of bad taste. With equal conviction as always, we remain on the side of all those multitudes fighting against all forms of racism.

Despite claiming the image was a terrible joke, many are not buying De Morgen’s explanation. Dutch publication Joop.nl argued, “What satire going on is unclear,” and the paper, which is a mainstream “progressive” publication, was excoriated on social media by angry readers.

This isn’t the first time President Obama was depicted as an ape in the media. Shortly after being  sworn into office the New York Post  ran a cartoon showing a cop shooting a chimpanzee alongside the caption, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” The paper rebuffed claims of racism calling the drawing “a clear parody of a current news.”

President Obama has yet to comment on the De Morgen controversy. He is expected to attend both NATO and EU meetings in Belgium this week.

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