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North Africa | World
Media | Society

The Prophet and the limits of the freedom of expression

Facsimile of the Danish daily 'Jyllands-Posten' from September 2005

© afrol News
afrol News editorial, 2 February
- The publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Danish and Norwegian newspapers has caused outrage, boycott calls and violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Several Muslim countries demand an apology from Denmark and Norway. afrol News, published from Norway, questions the motives behind the original publication, but defends the right of media in secular states to publish cartoons of the Prophet.

Mohammed has become an important personality in the life of all citizens in the world, whether they are Muslims or not. The words and deeds of the deceased Prophet have an impact on local, national and international politics far beyond the Muslim world.

In secular societies with a free press, Mohammed thus has figured in many cartoons over the years, for example as the incarnation of Islam. Despite the strict religious ban on drawing or painting the Prophet or God in Islam, these "guest star" appearances of Mohammed in the Western press so far have not caused protests by Muslims.

When the Danish daily 'Jyllands-Posten' on 30 September last year printed twelve cartoons of the Prophet, things however changed. The editor of the conservative daily had asked Danish cartoonist to draw Mohammed with the intention of "testing" what kind of reactions this would provoke. He wanted to find out whether the rather large number of Muslim immigrants to Denmark were influencing the limits of freedom of expression in the Nordic kingdom.

This "test" caused immediate reactions, with Danish Muslims demonstrating in front of the daily. The editor even received several death threats. 'Jyllands-Posten had achieved what it seemingly wanted - to demonstrate that there exists a conflict between liberal Danish cultural values and the values of the immigrant society. 'Jyllands-Posten' already previously had supported this view, propagated by Denmark's right-wing government.

During the Nordic winter, most Danish Muslims forgot about the provocation, except for a group of activists that went to the Middle East to spread the news about the blasphemy committed in Denmark. As protests against Denmark started to get organised by radical groups in Palestine, the tiny Christian fundamentalist weekly 'Magazinet' of Norway decided to publish the same cartoons "in support of" 'Jyllands-Posten'.

In January, protests in Palestine and Iraq against Denmark and Norway started to turn more violent. Death threats against all Danish and Norwegian citizens in the region were issued by radical groups. A boycott of Nordic products has been implemented in large parts of the Middle East, already costing hundreds of Danes their jobs. Several Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa have withdrawn their ambassadors from Copenhagen, awaiting an official Danish government apology. Libya has even closed its embassy in Copenhagen.

In Denmark, the action of 'Jyllands-Posten' found the support of the government and of most Danes. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused to meet 11 Arab ambassadors to discuss the case and has ruled out giving any apology. At 'Jyllands-Posten', however, pressure was too high and the daily earlier this week decided to apologise for having "provoked" fellow Muslim citizens, but not for publishing the cartoons. The editor resigned from his post.

In Norway, on the other hand, the editor of 'Magazinet' has been heavily criticised by other media and by several politicians, including former Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik of the Christian Party. Most observers hold that the printing of the cartoons was an unnecessary "provocation" by the insignificant weekly, only aiming at causing conflict. Oslo diplomats are trying to tranquilise Muslim leaders but the Norwegian government is not in a position to apologise, given the strong institution of press freedom in the kingdom.

As protests have also been directed towards the European Union (EU), of which Denmark is a member, the case this week caught the attention of the European press. As the cartoons now are "of public interest" due to the conflict and the debate surrounding the limits of the freedom of expression, several leading European media have decided to reprint them. These include 'France Soir' - whose editor was fired for that reason - Germany's 'Die Welt', Italy's 'La Stampa', Spain's 'El Periodico and 'Volkskrant' in the Netherlands. Many more, including afrol News, have carried facsimiles of 'Jyllands-Posten' and the cartoons.

As a Norwegian media that reaches out to many Muslims, afrol News feels obliged to have an opinion on this issue. afrol News is a strict defender of press freedom and is based on a belief that total freedom of expression is a must for development on all levels.

But as with any freedom, the freedom of expression carries responsibilities with it. When you call someone an idiot, you must be able defend your conclusion or face reactions. An expression can be as destructive as a gun. And especially the influential press - which has driven many persons into suicide due to irresponsible reporting - needs to be aware of its responsibilities. For that reason, we operate by ethical guidelines.

Basic press ethics tell us that we shall not seek to create conflict. More in particular, the Norwegian code of press ethics, by which afrol News operates, instructs us to respect other persons' belief and to be thoughtful when making a presentation.

In the view of afrol News, 'Jyllands-Posten' and 'Magazinet' acted in an unethical way when first printing the Mohammed cartoons. They were in their legal right to do so, but statements from the editors of the two publications indicate that the motive was to provoke a religious minority or to demonstrate this minority's tolerance limits. Especially in our times, where Christian and Muslim fundamentalists are trying to provoke a "clash of civilisations" against the will of the moderate majority, such provocations are at best thoughtless.

On the other hand, the death threats against the two editors and against Danish and Norwegian citizens at large by Muslim fundamentalist groups - even if willingly provoked - cannot be accepted. Also the fundamental lack of understanding of press freedom and secular values in Europe as demonstrated by several Arab governments is disappointing.

As the Mohammed cartoons now have turned into a public debate regarding freedom of expression versus religious taboos in all of Europe and in the Muslim world, their reprinting by other European newspapers is obvious. They now have public interest, being the seed of a diplomatic row. The press is even obliged by its own ethics to publish them at this point.

The press "cannot yield to any pressure from anybody who might want to prevent open debates, the free flow of information, free access to sources, and open debate on any matter of importance to society as a whole," our ethical guidelines say. Therefore, some European media have bought the cartoons for republishing while others, including afrol News, print a facsimile of the 'Jyllands-Posten' page in question. The sacking of the editor of 'France Soir' for having published the cartoons at this stage of the debate is incomprehensible.

This debate is of great importance to societies all around the world. Several questions must be discussed: Are some of us abusing the freedom of expression to publish statements that are meant to provoke conflicts? Are some of us abusing this freedom to get cheap publicity? Is a relatively new religious minority in its right when demanding limits to freedom in its new host country? Can Muslims dictate others on their religious taboos? Can non-Muslims dictate Muslims on religious taboos? Do we want to let religious fundamentalists dictate our political agenda?

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