Europe, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

RIGHTS-RELIGION: Fear or Fiat – the Limits of the Free Press

Miren Gutierrez*

ROME, Feb 21 2006 (IPS) - The cartoons issue has been argued as a debate between freedom of expression on one side and the responsibility of protecting religious sensibilities on the other. But each of these arguments needs to be examined a little more closely, because questions arise within each of these arguments, and not just between them.

Was this all about press freedom or editorial restraint, to begin with?

Any editorial choice against publishing, or apologising for those cartoons was not necessarily made by consideration for the religious sensibilities of Muslims. Fear was the real editor in many instances, not respect for another religion.

“This case is one in which people not resident in a country are using violence to try to impose limits on the freedom of speech in another country,” says Bill Kovach, chairman of the U..S.-based Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ), which defines itself as “a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics worried about the future of the profession.”

The violence that followed publication of the cartoons seemed to bear out the fears of editors who stayed away from them.

Of those who did not, two apologised – Jyllands-Posten, the Danish paper that first published them last September, and the Norwegian Magazinet. The editor of the French newspaper France Soir was sacked; the Malaysian Sarawak Tribune’s publishing licence was suspended, and its editor resigned; the Indonesian weekly Peta was seized; two Yemeni weeklies, the Yemen Observer and Al-Raï Al-Aam, were suspended; some Algerian TV journalists were dismissed; and Yihad Momani, editor of the Jordanian paper Shihan was fired when he tried to show his compatriots how excessive the reaction had been.

No doubt this violence will influence editorial decisions in the future.

“It is worth asking why…a good part of Europe that enjoys a culture of freedom has shown caution or apathy in the defence of its best values,” says Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa in an article for El Pais. “Danish prime minister (Anders Fogh) Rasmussen rejected the threats and the blackmail of the Islamic governments that would like to see implemented in Denmark the intimidating, censoring and brutal practices with which they manipulate their own media. But his orphanage in the European Union has been pathetic.”

What is more, the violence and the dread of it have immediately clouded that freedom versus responsibility argument. It is this fear that could lie above arguments that claim action – or inaction – that cite responsibility for their silence.

But it is not just violation of law that clouds the argument: it could be law itself.

Take the law in Europe. British historian David Irving has been sentenced to three years imprisonment by an Austrian court for doing no more than saying in 1989 that he did not believe there had been gas chambers at Auschwitz. And he was let off lightly; under Austrian law he could have faced ten years in prison for saying that. He now says that information he obtained following that offending remark leads him to think that there were indeed gas chambers and that millions of Jews were killed in World War II. He said it is “ridiculous” that he has been imprisoned just for expressing an opinion.

Not just Austria, but Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and of course Israel all have laws under which anyone who says the Holocaust did not happen could be sent to jail. And no country permits absolute freedom of speech; it is invariably limited by prohibitions against libel, obscenity, or judicial or parliamentary privilege.

“Certainly all countries limit free speech to one extent or the other,” Kovach said in an e-mail interview from Washington. “The more a country does limit speech, the less free it is.”

If freedom is limited both by law and the fear of a violation of law, can there be an agreed universal realm for freedom of expression?

Vincent Brossel from Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) says the limit of freedom of expression should stop at calls for violence and killing. An ill-famed instance is the radio that called on Hutus to eliminate Tutsis. But policymakers in France, Belgium, the United States and in the United Nations “did nothing to silence the radio that broadcast calls for slaughter,” says a report by Human Rights Watch.

Cartoonist John Callahan apologised for his strip that in 1995 depicted Martin Luther King, Jr. at age 13 standing in front of his soiled bed sheets and offering by way of explanation to his mother: “I had a dream.” As a result of that particular cartoon, he was punted from the Miami Herald.

The Hamshahri Daily in Iran launched a competition Feb. 13 inviting readers to submit cartoons on the Holocaust, to test the boundaries of free speech of Europeans.

Was making fun of Prophet Muhammad any different from making fun of the Holocaust? If denying the Holocaust can be outlawed, should also the drawing of cartoons of Muhammad? And where do you stop? The debate about rights on one hand and responsibilities on the other becomes rapidly more complex the further you take it.

It seems, though, that there is a difference between criticising Islamism – or the Pope, or Buddha, or Christian priesthood – and denying the massacre of millions. It is not a question of historical revisionism – facts cannot be denied – but a question of bad taste. And it seems also that publishing Holocaust caricatures in Iran is not as audacious as broadcasting Muhammad cartoons in Europe.

Some intellectuals, though, see a correlation between the Holocaust and the cartoons.

Writer Günter Grass suggests in an interview with El Pais that Islamic taboos should be respected. “We have lost the right to seek protection under the right to freedom of expression. Not so long ago, the crime of lese-majeste (disrespect to authority, particularly head of state) existed, and we should not forget that there are places in the world where there is no separation of Church and State. Where does the West get this arrogance to want to impose what one can and can’t do? I recommend that everybody take a closer look at the caricatures: they are reminiscent of the famous newspaper of the Nazi era, Der Stürmer, which published anti-Semitic cartoons of a similar style.”

Quite rightly this debate is one that concerns the CCJ, and indeed all journalists everywhere. “I don’t want to draw a line on limits of free speech except to say any limits should be the result of calm, rational discussion and debate in which the feelings, views, needs and values of everyone are heard and considered – not by fear or fiat,” says Kovach.

There is no denying the fury that the Muhammad cartoons provoked in the Muslim world that led to those acts of violence. If silence over the cartoons in Europe was provoked in good measure by fear or fiat rather than a sense of rights and responsibilities, then this provocation was not a simple act either.

Were the editors who published the cartoons provoking thought? Or were they provoking anger?

“We must understand that every society and religion have their own taboos,” says Brossel in an e-mail interview from Paris. “So it is a matter of respect. It cannot be a reason for a harsh censorship, but it can be a reason for just making a simple question: Was it necessary to publish those drawings if they could generate sorrow and anger in a large population?”

Kovach says “the cartoons were a provocation only to those who were provoked.” But he too asks, what kind of provocation. “An important role a journalist serves in a community is to invite people to think about new ideas and other opinions on important issues of the day. In that case an important test a responsible journalist will apply is to ask: Does this characterization – whether in visual art or words – challenge people to think, or will it simply anger them? If it simply enrages, then it does not engender thought, debate or discussion. Thinking stops where anger begins.”

Going by the images of violence on streets around the world, the cartoons seem to have provoked more anger than thought. But there could be others in whom they may have provoked thought, thoughts they cannot express for a lack of freedom to do so. Fears and fiats do not silence just editors.

But to the extent that the anger is legitimate – even if the violence is not – can silence on sensitive subjects, whether Muhammad or the Holocaust, be mandated by law? And where, and where all, should law set limits on the expression of thoughts?

“People grow to the extent they are willing to listen to the thoughts of others,” Kovach says. “Some of those thoughts may be repugnant and despicable to others. Such thoughts simply define the person uttering them and expose them to scorn and public rejection. The beauty and the value of truth is that even though others may deny it, it is still there. The worthlessness of an untruth is that simply saying it gives it no validity at all, it is still untrue.”

*Miren Gutierrez is editor-in-chief of IPS.

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