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Only More Democracy Can Save Democracy
The challenge of Danish cartoons to 'freedom of the press'
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-02-27 18:03 (KST)   
In honor of its 6th anniversary, OhmyNews announced an agreement with Softbank, a Japanese Company, to expand OhmyNews International and to spread citizen reporting, or what I prefer to call netizen journalism. In this article I want to raise one of the questions that needs thoughtful consideration in order to support the spread of netizen journalism.

This article is part of a series I am calling, "Only More Democracy Will Save Democracy," in honor of a column written by an autoworker in his local trade union newspaper in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s.

This autoworker, Carl Johnson, wrote a column in the newspaper of his local union, which appeared every other week. The newspaper was written by rank-and-file workers at the General Motors Chevrolet factory in Flint, Michigan. It chronicled the issues and problems of daily life on the shop floor of workers who had been part of the Great Flint Sit-Down Strike, a strike which ended victoriously on Feb. 11, 1937. The strike made it possible for workers at General Motors in Flint, Michigan, and subsequently for workers around the U.S., to have the mass trade unions where they could bargain with their employers over wages, hours, and working conditions.

In subsequent articles, I will give some further background about the tradition of local union newspapers in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s. But in this article I want to look at a problem that is critical to the idea of any newspaper, and particularly of a newspaper that welcomes contributions from a broad mass of people who want to contribute their news and views.

In one of Carl Johnson's columns, he wrote about how the right to "freedom of the press" was one of the few rights enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights. The first amendment to the U.S. constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

The recent media controversy over the cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten raises fundamental questions about what is the nature of "freedom of the press," and what actions are contrary to the exercise of this right.

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First, it seems critical to ask if, "freedom of the press" provides journalists with an unlimited license to write about and critique any avenue of social life and society that they wish.

The Culture Editor of the Danish newspaper who commissioned the cartoons that have caused a world wide reaction and discussion, Flemming Rose, recently published a statement explaining the reasons he solicited and then published the cartoons. His statement was published in the Washington Post on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2006, and in the Canadian ContraCosta Times on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2006.

Rose's answer to the question of whether "freedom of the press" means unlimited license is surprisingly "No". He states that his newspaper doesn't publish "pornographic images" nor does it publish "graphic details of dead bodies," and only rarely does the newspaper publish "swear words." Thus Rose is not arguing that "freedom of the press" is an unlimited license. Rather he proposes that a newspaper has a duty to exercise "restraint because of ethical standards and taste."

How then did he come to publish a set of graphics that have proven deeply offensive to many people around the world? And why would such graphics be replicated by other newspapers throughout Europe and elsewhere?

In trying to identify the dispute underlying this controversy, I found it helpful to reread an article published over 180 years ago in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is an article by James Mill, the father of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill on what he calls "Liberty of the Press," or what is now known as "Freedom of the Press."

In his article, James Mill describes what he poses are two critical aspects of "freedom of the press." The first aspect has to do with the fact that the press is a powerful force in society, and that such power brings with it an obligation to use it wisely and accurately. This power, however, as Mill explains, can also be used in a way that is harmful. This occurs if the press is used to spread falsehoods that damage the reputation of private people. If the power is used for harm by spreading false information, then this can cause various forms of injury.

Mill reviews the various forms of injury, from financial loss to a ruined reputation. If the entity responsible for spreading false information gains from the process, then there is a need not only to compensate the people who are harmed by the spread of the falsehoods, but also to remove the motive by sufficiently penalizing those who gain by spreading the falsehoods.

The second aspect of "freedom of the press" that Mill considers is how the press is needed to oversee government officials and institutions. In order to have good government, Mill proposes that there is a need for the population to be accurately informed about the activities of those in government and to have a way to discuss the pros and cons of government activities and of the officials charged with carrying out the public responsibilities.

Mill is proposing then that "freedom of the press" means protecting the press to oversee government officials and government activities, but also to prevent or penalize the abuse of the power of the press when it spreads falsehoods that harm people. An example of the distinction between protecting the "freedom of the press" and limiting the ability of the press to abuse its power was presented by a citizen reporter from Hanoi, Nguyen Ngoc Trung, during the Citizen Reporter Forum in Seoul last June. If a newspaper spreads false stories about a bakery, for example, writing that the bread baked by the bakery is unhealthy, the bakery may be forced to close. The newspaper has thus caused harm to the bakery, an undeserved harm. The power of the newspaper to cause such harm has to be prevented or the people will lose their access to the bread from the bakery and the baker will lose his livelihood.

How does Mill and the encyclopedia article on "Liberty of the Press" relate to the current debate on "freedom of the press" that is raised by the actions of Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten?

Rose offers as his reason for publishing the offensive cartoons that he wanted to prevent "self-censorship" in Danish society. Among several examples that Rose gives of this "self-censorship" is that of a Danish comedian he interviewed. According to Rose, the comedian related that he felt restrained about urinating on the Koran on camera, while he felt no problem doing this to the Bible. Rose also offers the example that the Tate Gallery in London withdrew an installation depicting the Koran, Bible and Talmud torn to pieces.

Given these and other examples, Rose explains that he solicited and published 12 cartoons that were recognized to be hostile to Muslims and the Muslim religion. The cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb-shaped turban has been cited as the most offensive of the 12 cartoons. This cartoon depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist. Explaining the reason he published this cartoon, Rose explains that he is not saying that "the prophet is a terrorist or that every Muslim is a terrorist." Rose proposes that he has a different interpretation of the cartoon.

Rose recognizes that it is not accurate to present the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist. But as he claimed in his recent statement, he decided to "Show, don't tell." By depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist, the graphic not only harms the reputation of the Prophet, it also harms the reputation of Muslim people and the Muslim religion.

Another factor for consideration when a newspaper decides to solicit and then print a graphic of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb-shaped turban is the discrimination that Muslims have been subjected to in Denmark in the past few years since the ascendency of right-wing parties in government. Similarly, in the U.S. and parts of Europe, Muslims are the victims of harassment as part of the so-called "war on terrorism."

In his statement, Rose explains that he prefers a moderate form of the Muslim religion and that Jyllands-Posten has published interviews and articles by such moderate Muslims. (1) While Rose may be entitled to his personal views about what form of Muslim leadership he prefers, when he uses the pages of a newspaper to present a falsehood regarding the reputation of those he doesn't like in favor of those he prefers, he becomes involved in an abuse of the power of the press, not in an exercise of the "freedom of the press."

Though there was an effort by Muslim leaders in Denmark to seek out a remedy for such abuse of the power of the press, they were refused any redress. When Muslim leaders complained about falsehoods that harmed the reputation of Muslims being spread in the newspaper, they were told that the cartoons, and hence the falsehoods they portrayed, were protected activity in Denmark under the provisions of the "freedom of the press."

In order to find a way to protest the falsehoods being propagated by the publication and republication of these Danish cartoons, demonstrations were held by those who felt injured by their publication. While the Western press has presented scant information about the posters carried in these demonstrations, some of the signs challenged the claim that "freedom of the press" can be equated with "mockery" and "insults" to someone's religion.

Some of the demonstrations have been aimed at the governments of the protesters, demanding that some action be taken to stop the harm caused by such publications. Protestors have also targeted the U.S. government for its anti-Muslim activities carried on in the name of "fighting the war on terrorism."

There may be people who want to comment on various religions and express their approval or disapproval of the activities of these religions. Whether or not they can or should do this is not relevant to the discussion about "freedom of the press." To utilize the power of the press to give support to such activities, however, loses sight of the fact that the role of the press is to oversee government activity. The role of the press is not to help or encourage governments to deprive citizens of some of their rights.

In an interview published in a Portuguese newspaper, the German writer Guenter Grass compared the publication of the Danish cartoons to "anti-Semitic caricatures of the same style" published by Der Sturmer, a German newspaper during the Nazi era. The publisher of these graphics "was found guilty of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg war crimes trial and executed in 1946." Referring to the Danish cartoons, Grass explained, "I recommend that everyone have a look at the drawings: they remind one of those published in a famous German newspaper during the time of the Nazis."

The harm that came to millions of people during the Nazi era, in part because of publications that fostered hatred against people because of their religious views, shows the damage that can happen if there isn't clarity about the nature of "freedom of the press" and the abuse of this precious right. The Danish government has failed to protect the right of its Muslim population to be free of discriminatory treatment. An appropriate role for the Danish and world press is to criticize the failure of the Danish government to protect the free exercise of religion for some of the Danish population. Turning the press into an instrument of abuse and falsehood is not a way to protect "freedom of the press." The Danish cartoons have challenged journalists around the world to clarify what the obligations and rights of the media are with regard to "freedom of the press." Netizen journalism has a particularly important role to play in meeting this challenge.
(1) When Rose joined the newspaper staff of Jyllands-Posten in 2004, he published an interview with the U.S. neocon Daniel Pipes. Pipes had previously written articles criticizing the Danish Muslim population and supporting the right wing anti-immigration activity of the Danish government. Pipes has held U.S. government positions and also actively works to determine which Muslims will be spokespeople for the Muslim population. See for example, Daniel Pipes and Lars Hedegaard, "Something rotten in the state of Denmark?" New York Post, Aug. 27, 2002, and for a critique of the article, Elisabeth Arnold and Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen, "Danish Politicians Refute Daniel Pipes 'FACTS'," National Post, Sept. 6, 2002.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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