Press Freedom
2008 WAN Press Freedom Roundtable

'Offending, Shocking, Disturbing - A Free Press Right?'

PFR.jpgAs the 2005 Danish caricatures of Prophet Mohammed continue to ricochet from newsrooms to religious communities to government offices and court rooms around the world, the right to offend, disturb and shock audiences has led many to question how far freedom of expression and freedom of the press can extend. During the press freedom roundtable at the 61st World Newspaper Congress in Göteborg, Sweden, publishers, journalists, a cartoonist and human rights experts defended the right to offend audiences but also addressed its implications. The debate was moderated by Miklos Haraszti, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

At the opening of the roundtable publisher and editor Philippe Val of the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo, said he re-published the contentious Danish caricatures of Prophet Mohammed as a statement of freedom of expression, "to show that it was possible to do so" and move on.

"If we, in a democratic country, no longer have the right to laugh at those who want to terrorize us, there's a real problem," said Val. Following the abrupt dismissal of the managing editor of the daily France-Soir for being the first editor in France to publish the cartoons, Val, along with the managing editor of L'Express, saw the urgency of exposing the problem within a democratic context. "It's satire-a satire on terror," he said, that has cross-societal ramifications and "has nothing to do with Islam."

Editor in chief and managing director Ulf Johansson of the Swedish regional newspaper Nerikes Allehanda published a cartoon of the Prophet as a dog for similar reasons. "We demanded that it must be possible to ridicule religion," he said, while also stressing that there needs to be space for all religions to be practiced. "[In Sweden] we defend [freedom of religion] as hard as freedom of speech," Johansson said.

Even with leaving editorial space for a variety of viewpoints which may include religious epithets or lampooning, Johansson said, "I surely don't mean that I would like to publish pictures of, for example Mohammed, easily in my newspaper...I must think about the Muslim people living in my hometown that were affected."

Likewise, Val believes "In a democracy, a political force, one that claims the right to define the limits of law, must expose itself to criticism and satire like anyone else. It is no longer a religion then, it is an ideology. We have the right to criticize Islam when it masquerades as a [political] ideology."

For that reason Val said the cartoons were not racist. Similarly, general counsel Dinah PoKempner of Human Rights Watch said the cartoons were particularly interesting insofar as they shook religious sentiment and not specific Muslim people, placing them at the other end of the spectrum from, for example, hate speech propagated during the Rwanda genocide by the radio station Mille Collines. Rather, the cartoons forced open the debate on "Islam's compatibility with secularism and atheism," as according to Val on what happened in France.

Hailing from a very different part of the world, editor in chief Jehad Momani, of the Jordanian weekly Shihane questioned the decisions of Val and Johansson to publish them in Western countries. He asked: "Why are we building campaigns against each other?"

Yet, both Val and Momani republished the cartoons to inform about what to some extent triggered uprising around the world. "I was punished because I attempted to present a rational response and to avoid a political and cultural conflict between our civilisations," Momani said. In efforts to prevent idolatry, Islamic law generally forbids any depiction of the Prophet.

Regardless, the Jordanian condemnation of Momani's action was more severe than the legal problems that faced European publishers of the cartoons. Momani is still on trial for blasphemy for his decision and if he is found guilty he could receive the death penalty.

How the different cases unfolded ultimately hint at true chasms between world cultures and, moreover, political systems; Val was charged with racism after complaints were filed by the Mosque of Paris, the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF) and the World Islamic League, but France, as a secular country, allowed for such depictions and Val won the case.

With many newspapers around the world reprinting the Danish cartoons and a long history of Prophet depictions dating back centuries, Momani explained why he was targeted with such vigour. "I became a victim because of a mistake, a shocking mistake by one of the most respectable news agencies, Agence France-Presse. It was deadly mistaken to say that my newspaper, Shihane, was the first in the Arabic world to republish the offensive cartoons of Prophet Mohammed," said Momani.

Momani believes offence is an inherent aspect of freedom of the press and expression as long as it is truthful. "It was my job to inform people and purvey the truth about these caricatures, which was not just to shock the world but also to change it," he said. In an editorial titled "Muslims of the World, Be Reasonable," Momani asked Muslims to gauge the offensiveness of the cartoons. "Who offended Islam more, terrorists or these cartoons?"

Mona Eltahawy, a fervent advocate of the right to offend and an award winning syndicated columnist and international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues, placed the cartoons at the bottom of the spectrum of what is offensive. She said that how cartoons are perceived and tackled with in the Muslim world is more offensive than what they may satirically allude to. It shows "we are squashed between the dictators on the one hand, and the Islamist groups on the other, neither of which believe in free speech," she said.

She also said that internecine relations in the Muslim and Arab world and acts of terrorism are more offensive than the cartoons. "No one dares to speak out about the Saudis because they are home to the two holiest sites of Islam, which I find incredibly offensive, much more offensive again than a cartoon in Denmark," she said.

"While the Saudis were trying to outdo the Egyptians on who could defend the Prophet the most, the Saudis have engaged in systematic destruction of the homes and sites associated with the Prophet and his companions, whom we are taught to revere in Islam and nobody speaks out about the offence the Saudis are causing to Muslim sensibilities," she added.

Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem, who has battled more than 50 court cases and faced a fatwa in 2004 for his cartoons, noted that "Islamists in Algeria continue to slit people's throats, the Islamic parties continue to incite hatred - no one protests, no one is bothered. But one caricature of Mohammed and suddenly everyone is out in the street. People were arrested; some of them are still in prison...But no one is moved enough to take to the streets," he said.

There are two lines of thought in this discussion and as PoKempner said in her speech, they "are situated at the crossroads of two important human rights principals." Advocates for unfettered freedom of expression espouse that people should be able to print, say or draw anything as a means of fermenting honest debate. Others believe limits should be placed to appease individual sensitivities, as untrammelled rights to say, write or draw anything can offend the most sacrosanct beliefs held by people.

Many of the speakers pointed out that with the latter position, people can as a result succumb to the dangers of self-censorship, a sort of individual morality or political correctness that has replaced legal censorship in the West. Fear can also enter the equation, ushering in more self-censorship.

PoKempner presented a world dynamic that has deepened post 9/11, which she called "pernicious barter." "Europe's concern with silencing radical Muslim praise of terrorism has been countered by pressure from Muslim states for Europe to silence criticism of Islam. It is a trade States have been willing to make, to the detriment of free expression everywhere."

Kenan Malik, a writer and lecturer at the University of Surrey, believes people should push offence as far as they want-people can offend but should not be unnecessarily crude or disrespectful. "In a homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way then the giving of offence would be nothing more that gratuitous. But in the real world where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them," he said.

In response Eltahawy said, "We must have no curbs because in offending everybody we argue and create the kind of environment we want. We don't wait for the dictator to tell us what is offensive or not and we don't wait for the religious groups to tell us what is offensive or not, we figure it out ourselves in that mess Malik mentioned."

Taking a spin on the usual line of argument to censor out of respect Malik flips topics of offence in favour of those being ridiculed. "The multicultural censor undermines individual autonomy, both by constraining the right of people to criticize others' beliefs and by insisting that individuals who hold those beliefs are too weak or vulnerable to stand up to criticism, satire or abuse," he said. To avoid offensive speech would, in his opinion, be implicitly defining the other as weaker than oneself.

"It is insulting Muslims to believe that they are incapable of humour and of distinguishing a cartoon that mocks a terrorist and a cartoon that mocks a believer. To me, that is racism. It starts with the fear of others and doubt over their intelligence," said Val in consensus.

The twist in this valid debate is that it has been seized upon by governments that want to limit freedom of the press and expression and create movements among their people to advance their agendas. Many of the speakers pointed at several governments that orchestrated the uproar to justify further restrictions to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

"The authorities did not hesitate to use this international scandal to silence the voice of an independent newspaper that criticized them," said co-founder and publisher Ali Amar of the Moroccan weekly magazine Le Journal Hebomadaire. Amar put forth an image of what happened in Morocco post-cartoon fury that belied the images of protest and violence that were broadcast across the world. "What happened in Morocco after the Danish cartoons were published had little to do with either Islamists or a mob mentality among people who might have been offended by the cartoons," he said.

"The protests were not really widespread - a few marginal Islamist organisations that were never able to mobilise much support. People never really rallied around the cartoon issue in Morocco. It just didn't inspire a massive movement. For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for the Iraq war, you see thousands of people in the street. But not for the cartoons," Amar continued.

The combustion from the cartoon controversy was in large orchestrated by governments and in Morocco Le Journal Hebomadaire was at the centre even though it did not print the cartoons. Amar's newspaper is known for being critical of the government, but with being at the cusp of embracing more Western ideals Amar said that the government is forced to use "subterfuge, that is, to try and turn public opinion against us by organising protests itself, protests that are completely contrived and whose sole purpose is to discredit our editorial line."

"Police brought the demonstration materials, made banners in police cars and even posted them on the walls of police precincts...Government workers were dropped off in front of the paper's offices with the police themselves providing their signs. Talk about full public service!" he said about the protests made against his paper. Adding on, Ali Dilem stated: "I don't have problems with the Algerians I meet. It's more with the authorities." And he says this even "with not crossing the line of sketching Mohammed."

Malik also pointed to the invalid assumption that the cartoons, as propagated via another form of government manipulation, offended all Muslims. Muslims who want to live in a secular society actually set up little known counter-demonstrations to the cartoon protests. "But such voices get silenced in the rush to censor that, which is deemed to cause offence," he said.

"And once again, none of this has anything to do with the right to draw, even the right to draw Mohammed," said Dilem. Rather as Amar said, "the cartoon issue goes back to the nature of the regime itself" and ultimately, as Malik reminded, "The power to censor is in the hands of the few, but the capacity for free speech is in all our mouths."

To download the roundtable proceedings, please click here:
WAN Press Freedom Roundtable 2008