United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan (CP file photo)

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan wishes editors wouldn't get so worked up about freedom of expression that they feel justified reprinting the Muhammad cartoons that have enraged some Muslims in recent days.

"Let me say that, honestly, I do not understand why any newspaper will publish the cartoons today," Annan told reporters in New York City on Thursday.

"It is insensitive. It is offensive. It is provocative, and they should see what has happened around the world.

"This does not mean that I am against freedom of speech, or freedom of the press. Yes, I am for that.

"But as I have indicated in the past, freedom of speech is not a licence. It does entail exercising responsibility and judgment."

The 12 cartoons, published in a Denmark newspaper in September, have been reprinted in more than 20 countries since a series of sometimes violent protests erupted in Muslim countries in the past two weeks. In Canada, they have appeared in Montreal's Le Devoir and The Cadre, the student paper at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Many Muslims consider any depiction of Muhammad to be blasphemous and reject ideas of fair comment where he is concerned. In one of the cartoons, Muhammad is shown wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb with a burning fuse. In another, he is seen telling suicide bombers arriving in heaven that there are no virgins left.

In the past week, at least 11 Afghans died in protests – some of them shot by police as a mob stormed a camp where Norwegian and Finnish troops are based. Demonstrators also set fire to the Danish Embassy in Beirut and the embassies of Denmark and Norway in Damascus.

U.S. officials, among others, have suggested the protests are being stage managed by radical groups and anti-Western governments such as Syria's, which is not known for tolerating spontaneous demonstrations.

Annan declined to be drawn into that argument.

"As to the question of whether some governments are manipulating this, it's difficult for me to say," he said. "I have no evidence to that effect.

"This is so widespread, and it is unfortunate that we all need to take steps to calm the situation. And whatever the anger of those concerned, violence is not the answer."

Annan was similarly agnostic on questions of free expression.

"I often say it is a bit like religion. If there is a problem, it is not with the faith, but the faithful. It is not the text, it is the way we interpret it."