Freedom, Fear & the Media

In meeting the ideal of ‘speaking truth to power,’ safety is pitted against integrity, as traditions and values collide

News | Thomas Faria, Michael R. Weingartner | November 2009

Freedom of the press can be dangerous. In meeting the ideal of "speaking truth to power," personal safety is often pitted against personal integrity, the rule of honor against the rule of law. In an increasingly globalized world, traditions and values inevitably collide.

All of this came to the fore at the International Press Institute’s (IPI) "War on Words" Conference on Terrorism, Media and the Law held in Vienna in early October, raising concerns over the ability of media to balance its responsibility to report on terrorism with the risk of abetting it.

In the discussion involving representatives from a key panel addressed the controversy over the Danish cartoons, that organizers chose as an emblematic example of just such a double-edged sword, where it is hard to stay neutral and a clear moral position difficult to achieve.

Ultimately, the conference delivered a draft declaration that left some, if not many, participants unsatisfied, feeling it was once again a case of pressure by the developed countries on the developing, and where standards of press freedom taken for granted in established democracies were neither achievable, nor even necessarily useful.

Gaps of this kind showed up repeatedly, not only between the East and the West but also between the countries with common law and civil law, such as the United States and Britain vs. the countries of continental Europe.

The common law countries took the firm position that freedom of speech and of the press should include all types of expression, positive or negative, and rely on self-regulation with the least possible government interference. But even the Europeans were of different minds among themselves as to what was the better system. With the weight of recent history affecting its views, many said they would permit only limited freedom, one that does not allow, for example, hate speeches, or in some countries such as Ireland, setting legal prohibitions on blasphemy.

These differences up clearly on the debate about the Danish Cartoons that stirred up violence in the Muslim communities, who protested the publishing of any image of Mohammed – forbidden in their culture – and the making of what they consider outrageous jokes on the role of the Prophet in political life.

The incident, widely reported in both western and Muslim countries, involved the  Danish newspaper Jyllands- Posten, the editor of the newspaper, Flaming Rose, who in September 2005, commissioned twelve drawings by various cartoonists expressing their feelings and outlooks on Islam. After the drawings had been taken to the Middle East, there was an outcry by some radical Islamic factions. Subsequently, Muslims all around the world organized demonstration against these depictions of Islam and its Prophet Muhammad. While some were peaceful, some turned into riots and more widespread violence, with participants claiming a right that their religion is not to be insulted.

The Danish government refused to act in the controversy, which only added to tensions, according to panelist Michael Christian Havemann, a lawyer from Copenhagen.

"They ignored the fact that Denmark’s blasphemy laws punish offensive publications that can disrupt public order," Havermann said; then Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused to welcome other Prime Ministers in his office who wished to debate the issue at hand on a political level. "He felt that politics should not be concerned with such an issue," Havermann said, a stance that was not accepted by other officials.

Some panelists agreed. "One has to understand all the previous events which led to such an outcry of the Muslim community," said Richard Winfield, Chairman of the World Press Freedom Committee and professor at Columbia University, supporting Havemann’s view. In 2004, a fanatic gunman had murdered the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had made a controversial film critical of Islamic culture. Where is the border of what is allowed and what not to be set, Winfield wondered, when it comes to a choice between freedom of speech and public safety?

While van Gogh was a controversial figure, "he was a champion of free speech," one of the filmmaker’s colleagues told the BBC. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende also spoke strongly in van Gogh’s defense.

"It is unacceptable if expressing your opinion would be the cause of this brutal murder".

However more surprising that Havermann’s critique of the cartoons, was the support from several Muslim journalists for the right to publish. Endy Bayuni from The Jakarta Post in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim Population, and Najmus Saqeb Mueen, Chair of the Public Affairs Committee of the Muslim Council in Europe agreed that while the cartoons were not necessarily the best journalism, they deserved to be self regulated by the press and mistakes should be permitted to learn from them. They observed that the Western media often uses a small segment of the Muslim community to create a sense of polarity and fear, that as well, serves in aiding terrorism.

"There are, as such, no taboos, but still the cartoonist should stick to certain guidelines, as every member of a society should do," said Michael Pammesberger, an independent cartoonist for various Austrian dailies. "The borders of what is allowed and what isn’t should remain within the ethical understanding of the respective cartoonist."

It is very important for him not be restricted by any group think. It should be, rather,  a dialogue between the reader and the cartoonist. The limits of what is allowed and what is not depend not on where the limits begin or end, but who sets them. It’s not up to political authorities or other organizations such as NGO’s or religious authorities to decide what may be published or not.

Trying to come up with a consensual agreement, Mueen suggested the media come up with self regulating mechanisms, which he proposed as both more appropriate and more effective that government regulation, which was the case in Indonesia before the governmental change in 1998. He also vigorously criticized the media, which all too often focuses on the fanatic minority, thus giving a false picture of Islam to the world.

Rather the media should focus more on the moderate majority, he said, and work towards peacefully contributing to a better understanding of Muslim culture and Islam.

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