'Offending, Shocking, Disturbing - A Free Press Right?'
As 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.
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
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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?"
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
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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