Press freedom threatened

LONDON - FEBRUARY 03:  Muslim demonstrators hold banners at the Danish Embassy on February 3, 2006 in London. British muslims have condemned newspaper cartoons which first appeared in a Danish newspaper, some of which depict the Prophet Mohammed wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. The cartoons have sparked worldwide protests.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Do you wonder if every religion news story from here on out is going to involve some kind of clash of civilizations? I hope not but here’s another entry into that category. We’ve covered the various stories surrounding the Danish cartoon controversy that erupted a few years ago. German Chancellor Angela Merkel honored the creator of some of the controversial cartoons at a ceremony this week. Since 2006, Kurt Westergaard has had his life repeatedly threatened by Muslims angry over his art. Here’s how AFP put it:

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday defended a Danish cartoonist whose drawing of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb for a turban earned him death threats, as he was given an award in Germany.

“[We] are talking here about the freedom of opinion and of the press. It’s about whether in a Western society with its values, he is allowed to publish his Mohammed cartoons in a newspaper or not,” Merkel said.

“It is irrelevant whether his caricatures are tasteless or not, whether he thinks they are necessary or helpful, or not. Is he allowed to do that? Yes, he can,” Merkel added in the speech in Potsdam near Berlin.

Kurt Westergaard, who is under constant police protection, “is a cartoonist, of whom there are many in Europe. Europe is a place where a cartoonist is allowed to draw something like this.

“This is no contradiction that Europe is also a place where freedom of belief, of religion, where respect for beliefs and religions, are valuable commodities.”

At the same time Merkel slammed as “abhorrent” plans by US pastor Terry Jones’s Dove World Outreach Center in Florida to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks by burning Korans.

The AFP story is good, but I wish that maybe they would have explored that last bit a tiny bit more. It is difficult for an American reader, perhaps, to understand the distinction Merkel makes between freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Even just the tiniest head nod to the Nazi history of book burning might have helped.

But both the AFP and BBC stories missed another nuance or underplayed a problem to the point it’s problematic. From the BBC:

Dozens of people died in violence that broke out in early 2006, months after Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons showing Muhammad in a variety of humorous or satirical situations. Muslims regard the depiction of the prophet as blasphemy.

That’s true, if by “dozens” we mean well over a hundred, including a nun a priest targeted because of their religion. It’s also true, however, that the violence that broke out had a more complex story behind it. What hasn’t been explained well is that two imams living in Denmark created a 43-page dossier claiming to show images that had been published in Jyllands-Posten. They did — they included the 12 cartoons such as Westergaard’s depicting Mohammed’s turban as a bomb. But they also included pictures from another Danish newspaper (which had actually been satirizing Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons). And then they included some very offensive cartoons that never appeared in any newspaper. Here’s how Reason magazine put it:

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - JUNE 2:  Police invesitgators and female medics work the scene outside the Danish Embassy following an explosion on Monday June 2, 2008 in Islamabad, Pakistan. A suspected car bomb exploded outside the embassy at midday, killing at least 8 people and wounding more than a dozen, according to reports. It is not yet known who bears responsibility for the blast, though militant Islamic groups have threatened Danish embassies around the world with retribution for the publications of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, first printed in September 2005.  (Photo Warrick Page/Getty Images)

The images include an amateurish doodle identifying Mohammed as a pedophile, a dog humping a prostrate praying Muslim (with the caption, “This is why Muslim pray five times a day”), and a photocopy of a French comedian in a pig-squealing contest (with the phony caption, “Here is the real image of Mohammed”). . . . It is as if the pope created “Piss Christ” and then passed it off as the work of critics of Catholicism.

They took these images on a tour of various countries — telling people, falsely, that Jyllands-Posten was a government paper. BBC didn’t exactly help matters by incorrectly reporting that one of the images had been published in Jyllands-Posten. Anyway, the imams made their tour, meeting with prominent people and telling folks that the Danes are infidels.

There was a lot of fallout. The the Organisation of the Islamic Conference demanded that the United Nations impose international sanctions upon Denmark. And, in fact, a consumer boycott was organized in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries. Demonstrations took place worldwide. The Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were set on fire. So were the Danish embassies in Beirut and Tehran. Altogether, at least 139 people were killed in protests. Bounties were put on the heads of the cartoonists and death threats soon followed. Many went into hiding. A government official in India announced a prize for anyone who beheaded “the Danish cartoonist.” The U.S. accused Iran and Syria of organizing the protests. In the four or five years since all this happened, there have been a number of police actions. A Pakistan student tried to kill a Berlin newspaper editor for reprinting the cartoons. Two suitcase bombs were discovered in trains near two German cities — police say they were to be detonated in response to the cartoons. One terror suspect said in trial that his group was considering sending a remote-controlled car packed with explosives into the home of the Jyllands-Posten editor. And then there have been the high-profile attempts to murder Westergaard, one just earlier this year. It has had other fallout as well. When Yale University Press published “The Cartoons that Shook the World” — they removed the cartoons in question.

This does, of course, play a bit into the other story everyone’s obsessing about right now. There is a clash here. There is tension between religious liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the views of some Muslims about whether these values are inviolable. It’s a very difficult story — and one that has been made more complex by misrepresentations made throughout the world.

Merkel may pay a heavy price for her decision to stand for freedom of the press, if the BBC story is to believed. But as the media and others are making a circus out of these issues through their irresponsible elevation of a publicity stunt, have we made any progress in conveying the importance of these values or why they benefit a free society? Have we seen any coverage looking critically at why so many are so fearful of the response to a publicity stunt?

The threats to a free press or both external and internal. Both sides need vigilance.

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  • michael

    I’ve read this a couple of times now, and I’m not sure that I get what you’re saying. Is the basic point that the threat of violence by Islamic radicals is intimidating the press into self-censorship and thus threatening its freedom?

    If so, I’m not sure I buy it, at least not completely. I grant the examples of a certain self-censorship in the case of the Dutch cartoonist. But it seems to me that there is a case to be made that it is partly this threat of violence which has made Terry Jones into a global media phenomenon, while certain ‘new atheists’, by contrast, can make sport of desecrating the Eucharist without media comment or attention. In other words, the threat of violence has done less to restrict press freedom than to engender a certain exercise of that freedom.

    Whatever, I think our conventional notion of ‘a free press’, like most American pieties, calls for more rigorous analsysis: specifically the question of whether and in what sense the press actually is free, and whether and to what extent our alleged free press contributes to a genuinely free society. All of which begs the question of what freedom actually is–though that question falls outside the bounds of journalism.

    For instance, there are those in threads below whose basic argument, with respect to the Koran burning controversy e.g., is that the press is essentially unfree. Once a character like Terry Jones manages to insert himself into public view, the entire global media apparatus is obliged to cover it, partly from intrinsic journalistic reasons, partly from extrinsic reasons exerted by a competitive market. (Whether a media market can coexist with a free press is a fascinating question in its own right.) And there is also a serious argument to be made that the social function of our contemporary media apparatus is not so much to facilitate the free exchange of ideas, as to enforce and reinforce basic presuppositions of our political culture and the bounds of acceptable public opinion–media mediate after all–and to prevent certain ideas and questions which threaten that consensus from ever appearing to view.

    All of which is to say that I’m not sure that press freedom is the most helpful category for trying to understand this clash of cultures.

  • Dave G.

    I do wonder why, given the middle finger that various religions – including Islam – has received over the years, this one incident has sparked all the coverage and outrage and threats. What it all means.

    But I admit I’m enjoying how the basic media coverage all seems to begin with ‘let’s face it, this guy (Jones) is scum of scum, lowlife of lowlifes, moron, idiot, whatever.’ Even President Obama said this is contrary to what America stands for. Yet, and I’m showing my age here, back in college in the late 80s, our core values were ever and ALWAYS in support of freedom of speech. Especially when it involved pissing off religious people. When the Elephant dung on Mary art exhibit was covered, there was no way I could miss the message behind the controversy: It’s OK not to like it, heck, it’s OK to be offended. But don’t ever, ever attack the messenger or the right to speak the message.

    Now, it’s all changed hasn’t it. Apparently, South Park, P.Z. Meyers, Rev. Jones, Charles Merrill are all unAmerican, and don’t represent what America stands for (though I’ve only heard one name in that list mentioned thus far). I might have blinked too long, but I sure missed that shift. It would be fun to see the media explain when things shifted from ‘artistic and expressive freedoms above all things’ to ‘religious tolerance and respect for religious sensitivities above all things.’

  • Jim

    Dave G.
    The shift came when the offended is a “minority” religion like Islam (1.6 billion people need to be defended). The media’s job is to defend the defenseless. In America, the “majority” religion is never seen as defenseless and so is open for ridicule. Defending the defenseless is the same reason there has been little mention of whether or not Muslims should be held responsible for their own actions if Mr. Jones burns a Koran. If in the 80′s Christians started riots for the offenses you detailed, there would be outrage against the Christians. Now the outrage is against the perpetrator of the speech, not against the violent reaction.

  • Dave

    Jim, I don’t thing “defending minorities” explains the journalistic shift Dave G. perceives. Terry Jones and his church are surely in the minority; I’ve read of no one who approves of his proposed (now suspended) action, even as they defend his right to be perversely provocative.

  • Dave G.


    Dave hit it right on. By that argument, Pastor Jones should have the media circling the wagons around him, not pouncing on top of him. Also, what does that mean? How is “Christianity” the majority religion? Does that mean all Christians? Catholics? Protestants? What about Mormons. They’re a minority, yet it wasn’t too long ago that the Mormon church was taking a full hit broadsides and the ‘media’ seemed perfectly willing to let those cutting loose have a say. Shouldn’t the press been the shield bearers for Mormons? If most Americans support gay rights, shouldn’t the press be out running guard for those who oppose the gay rights movement?

    Besides, the whole ‘majorities have it coming’ doesn’t work historically. More than once in history, a small but powerful minority was able to oppress the numerical majority.

    So the flaws in that idea are legion, for they are many. Of course you could be right. People may actually believe that certain things are only wrong when done to certain people. I certainly hope journalists wouldn’t buy into that, since that’s really no different than folks have ever thought throughout time.

  • Jerry

    I indirectly tried to suggest in another recent post where I mentioned fire in a crowded theater that there is a component of responsibility that goes with freedom. George Bernard Shaw made this point when he wrote: Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it. Total freedom without responsibility is libertarian anarchy. Total responsibility without freedom is totalitarian state control. The US has for the most part kept the ‘dial’ in the freedom direction, although not always, such as during war which is arguably what we’re in right now.

    I’m much more concerned about the lack of responsibility which shows up as lack of balance, pandering sensationalism as well as doing fact checking of even the most basic kind. If there is a threat to press freedom, it’s that many now consider what they read in the media no more reliable than the latest email rumor as Mayhill Fowler outlined in her piece at

    Given that the left consider MSM corrupt tools of the right and big business and the right considers the MSM corrupt tools of the left, many would not care if the media as we know it disappeared.

    So when it comes to stories like Quran burning, I want the media to consider what their responsibilities are as well as their freedoms. And if they cover such stories, to do it in a way that is balanced, that minimizes sensationalism and that is fully fact checked. And I’d hope it was done in a way that reflect the reality of our war against those who want to stuff the world into a distorted reflection of 7th century Arabia. If this by some miracle happened, I would not be concerned that we were in danger of losing our press freedoms.

  • Michael Pettinger

    The discussion above is very interesting, but it blurs an essential difference between what might happen in Florida tomorrow and the Danish cartoons. Terry Jones is not a member of the media. But if I understand correctly, the Danish cartoonist was working for a newspaper. He was part of the media, and he and his newspaper used their freedom in a way that was intended to provoke Muslims. That remains true, whatever misrepresentation was later carried out by Muslim rabble-rousers.

    There is a line, perhaps a fine one, between criticizing others and engaging in psychological violence — and intentionally blasphemous portrayals of what a religious group holds sacred, whether that group is a majority or a minority, is psychological violence.

    I can understand the anger people feel about violence purportedly carried out “in the name of Islam.” But Kurt Westergaard responded with another kind of violence, and while what he did does not justify threats to his life, it strikes me as misguided to portray him a hero of press freedom.

  • Dave

    I’m not saying this to be anti-Islam. I think this is a valid comparison:

    Jerry, would you want the media to proceed with the same reflection and consideration were the story the stoning of an Afghan adulteress?

  • Passing By

    I generally agree with Jerry, noting only the media as we know it is already disappearing. I’m not a professional journalist, but it strikes me as significant when a major news organization is willing to credit blogs as news sources. Here’s a story about the AP memo.

  • Dave G.

    There is a line, perhaps a fine one, between criticizing others and engaging in psychological violence — and intentionally blasphemous portrayals of what a religious group holds sacred, whether that group is a majority or a minority, is psychological violence.

    This could be true. But it took until c. September, 2010 to come to that realization. Or at least for people in our popular mainstream to admit it.

  • Passing By

    I’m going to review this thread after seeing how the press covers the pope’s visit to England: the papal events and the various protests being planned.

  • John Pack Lambert

    However there is a long tradition of portrayal of Muhammad in Islam. Why do those who object to it get to be the “true” arbiters of Islamic thought, as opposed to those who see portrayal of Muhammad as a worthwhile thing?

    Anyway the Turban/bomb cartoon was political satire, it was not religious insult. It does not really meet the definition of sacrilege. Sacrilege with images is to deliberately descrate them. However the Muhammad with a bomb image was to comment on Muslim tendencies to violence.

    Some of the other images that the Danish paper published were even less offensive.

  • Julia

    Besides, the whole ‘majorities have it coming’ doesn’t work historically. More than once in history, a small but powerful minority was able to oppress the numerical majority.

    I agree. This ‘majorities have it coming’ is similar to the argument I heard on the news from a pundit the other night – only oppressors with power can be “racist”. So minorities who feel historically oppressed can take pot shots at whomever they please. Except if they are Mormons or other often-disliked minority groups who may or may not have any power to oppress.

    This is another way of saying that victimized groups have carte blanche. I even read someone say that self-identified victims don’t have a responsibility to be rational in their public statements.

    I’ve been following English newspapers for many years. I’ve seen this change we’re talking about creep into their press attitudes. Now it’s coming here.

    Catholics are supposed to take it on the chin – their religious sensitivities are stupid. On the other hand, Muslim sensitivities are very valid and must be respected by the media.

    I, too, am waiting to see how the press in the UK (and in America which lifts that coverage verbatim) treats the Pope’s visit. He was invited by their Queen which does not seem to affect how even British government flunkies are trashing him personally when they would dare not do that to the King of Saudi Arabia, guardian of Mecca and Medina.

  • Dave G.

    I agree. This ‘majorities have it coming’ is similar to the argument I heard on the news from a pundit the other night – only oppressors with power can be “racist”.

    I’ve hear that so often. That was actually a big debate when I was in college (again, in the late 80s). I remember a fellow coming to explain why only Whites can be racist. I thought then ‘boy, we just don’t learn from history, do we?’

    Much of this, of course, I have my own opinions on, and I’m sure the editors of Get Religion are more than happy for me to keep them to myself. But I do admit that I see much of the coverage regarding this and other recent incidents to assume these particular viewpoints. That’s the part I find amusing. Do they do this to advance an agenda? Or are they that unaware of the biases and world views that they happen to have.

  • Jerry

    Jerry, would you want the media to proceed with the same reflection and consideration were the story the stoning of an Afghan adulteress?

    Yes. There are many news events that could be “teachable moments” and such atrocities provide an opportunity to examine crime and punishment from many different Islamic perspectives – in other words to put the story into a larger context.

    So fairness and balance should be more than a slogan used by a network with is neither. Of course we’ll disagree about what is fair/balanced, that is human nature. But we should all agree on the value of people doing their best to provide balanced coverage. One of the services GetReligion performs is calling out blatant lack of balance in coverage.

    I’m happy to see self-reflective pieces like this one because it gives me hope:

    We love crazies — they pull in audiences like a tractor beam. Even the mildly aberrant — say, a runaway bride — can dominate news cycles for days. But there was much more to the story of Pastor Jones. He is the fun-house mirror reflection of a certain segment of Americans…

    The problem for journalists was that in this political season, the story grew like a snowball rolling down a hill, and we have to take some responsibility for pushing it. The media, awash in controversy over the so-called ground zero mosque, smelled a pungent parable in the pastor’s tale.

    Most journalists here are guided by what’s called a sphere of consensus. What is commonly held to be outside that sphere is rarely heard. There was a time when moral condemnation of slavery was outside that sphere. But now with so many people producing media, the contours of acceptable speech have grown indistinct…

    We say our enemies hate our freedom. But sometimes we seem to hate it, too.

    Weeks before it caused a ripple here, reports of the pastor’s plan, carried by the Internet, reverberated across the Middle East. So did the American fracas that followed, generating much wonderment and confusion. The impact abroad is a real story — but it wasn’t created by our media.

    It is, in a sense, about our media.

  • Dave G.

    carried by the Internet, reverberated across the Middle East. So did the American fracas that followed, generating much wonderment and confusion. The impact abroad is a real story

    Know what I’d like to know? I watched CNN discussing why the media coverage was OK. It traced the history of this story. According to its take, the story had its roots in American journalists noting it already being covered, and condemned, in the Islamic world. By the time it came to America, the story was of impending protests in light of Jones’s plans.

    My question, and folks who know more about the media in other countries could tell me – were there similar protests planned when P.Z. Meyers, atheist professor, trashed a Koran? Were their protests when it shot across the Internet that Charles Merrill had burned a Koran after trashing a Bible? I don’t remember hearing about it. There are two choices really:

    1. There were protests, thousands of protesters and riots and weeks of coverage in the Islamic world…we just didn’t hear about it. So I would like to know why, if that is the case, we didn’t. Or,

    2. There were no protests or coverage in the Islamic media, even though those stories were popular enough for me to know them. Then, it would be interesting to ask why do certain things spur threats of violence and destruction and death from various parts of the Islamic world, threatening our troops and our very lives? And why do some apparently pass without care?

    I would especially like to know if #2 is the case.