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Caricatures, Cartoons and the Clash of Cultures
Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, France - Quo vadis, Freedom of the Press?
Alexander Krabbe (AlexKrabbe)     Print Article 
Published 2006-02-03 16:19 (KST)   
Germany 2006: More than half a century after the fall of the Third Reich, the government still limits freedom of the press and thus overall freedom of expression. Whoever tries to find Nazi propaganda on web pages hosted in the Federal Republic of Germany, be it for educational purposes or for dubious intent, the search won't be successful unless the user decides to be persistent. The fruits of this kind of search would appear not worth the effort, considering the amount of information to be found on foreign web sites . According to federal law, German citizens are prohibited from showing any symbols of the Nazi empire or its propaganda in public, including the Internet. Exceptions to this law require a very complex and tedious authorization process.

The Jew Promises Paradise - Nazi Propaganda Material
Nazi propaganda used any method necessary to strengthen the dictatorship's rule and ideology. Caricatures in particular were an integral component of National Socialist strategy in controlling and guiding public opinion. The press then was no longer free but was degraded into a reliable instrument of the Nazi government.

Bad Windsheim is a small town in Bavaria, Germany. During the Nazi period its local newspaper printed anti-semitic propaganda cartoons, in common with practically all news magazines in Germany at that time. This cartoon employed a low-key German poem: "The older and the younger son, the mother and the son-in-law, her look, which comes [from her] eyes says: Don't trust a Jew!"

All Eyes on Denmark

If every democratic country in the world banned Nazi propaganda, it would be even harder for parents and teachers in Germany to explain the fearsome success of the Nazis to their children and pupils. But across the northern border of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein lies the small country of Denmark. Here a German can learn much about his country's darkest years, where authentic as well as less credible information and material on Hitler-era Germany is available with no difficulty. Unlike its big southern brother, Denmark is known for its very liberal handling of issues dealing with freedom of speech, the press, and expression. Sometimes German visitors wonder why even xenophobic propaganda can be broadcast on radio stations by the radical right. This is not the main reason, however, why the country now faces a lot of criticism from countries in the Arab world and from Danish Muslims.
Propaganda Cartoon from the Windsheimer Zeitung
©2006 Windsheimer Zeitung

It all began with a Danish author of excellent children's books who wanted to explain the religion of Islam to his country's youngest citizens. By creating an illustrated children's book, Kare Bluitgen very likely did not expect to ignite an international furor. Given the widespread fear of becoming a target of religious extremists, like the murdered Dutch director and columnist Theo Van Gogh, Bluitgen had difficulty finding illustrators who would draw a likeness of the Prophet Muhammad for the book. Hereupon the political right-wing Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten took up the issue and published 12 satiric cartoons showing the founder of Islam.

Bluitgen, born in 1959, the winner of the Award of the Danish Ministry for Cultural Affairs, is engaged in developing foreign aid projects, and was featured this week by the German weekly Die Zeit. According to the article, the author has always had an open mind on immigration issues. He lives in the multicultural Copenhagen district of Norrebro. His own children were sent to a school in which the majority of children are sons and daughters of immigrants. The reportage of Die Zeit was in solidarity with Jyllands Posten, the highest-circulation Danish newspaper, inspired by a common fear on the part of the European press of losing its hard-earned freedom.

Pressure from the Middle East and Muslim Immigrants

Cartoon from Jyllands Posten Denmark sparked an uproar among Muslims.
©2006 Jyllands Posten
In a sense the Danish government and the editors of Jyllands Posten have already sacrificed freedom of the press in their country. Following massive protests in the Middle East and threats of a boycott of Danish products by several Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the Prime Minister of Denmark Anders Fogh Rasmussen has had to distance himself from the caricatures in Jyllands Posten. Danish flags were burned in Palestine; Arab ambassadors to Denmark were recalled by their governments; armed militias in the Gaza Strip demanded the closing of all E.U. bureaus in the area; and even in Denmark itself Muslim demonstrators expressed their anger in vociferous protests.

Carsten Juste, Jyllands Posten's editor in chief, tried to defuse the situation by releasing an official exculpation. Several sources in the Middle East, however, as well as radical Muslim preachers in Denmark, remain dissatisfied with the statement, calling for the punishment of the newspaper's editorial staff.

Reactions of the European Press

The first European newspaper to reprint Jyllands Posten's controversial drawings was the French tabloid France Soir. This Thursday, one day after reproducing the caricatures, Editor in Chief Jacques Lefranc was fired by the newspaper's Franco-Egyptian owner, Raymond Lakah. Nevertheless, the same day the newspaper's editorial staff decided on a headline, with the plea "Help us, Voltaire they've gone crazy!" The article questioned why the ban on portraying Muhammad should also extend to those who don't believe in Islam. "Is a society imaginable in which all bans of all religions are added up? What remains then of the freedom of expression?" Critics say the newspaper is using every opportunity to arouse public attention, owing to its dire financial condition.

Also on Thurday the German daily Die Welt reproduced the caricatures in documentary form. Chief Editor Roger Koppel rationalized the newspaper's decision by explaining that it would be "absolutely legitimate to publish caricatures on religious issues." He added the fact that in Arab societies public decapitations could be broadcast on TV, thereby reminding us of important cultural differences between Europe and parts of the Arab World. In western societies pictures of massive violations of human rights, such as public executions, in the first instance naturally lead to personal outrage, but if not uncomplainingly accepted, are followed by support for the constructive activities of global human rights organizations rather than by angry mass protests against those countries.

The international organization for the freedom of the press, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), declared all European governments now were responsible for backing the democratic rights of the press. The outrage and the call for legal measures by the Danish government against Jyllands Posten would "indicate a misunderstanding of the freedom of press in the (Arab) countries," where it "isn't understood that there can be a complete separation of government and a free press," as RSF RSF President Robert Menard explained.

Does Satire Know No Limits?

One basic practice in secular democracies consists of the stylistic method of satire, holding up all issues and persons to ridicule. This is what the famous British comedy group Monty Python did in 1979 when they targeted Jesus Christ with remorseless satire in the cult movie "Life of Brian." In light of the recent conflict on freedom of expression, the Monty Python movie can be considered productively as a critique of religious zealotry in its use of highly intelligent irony.

One German magazine that has dedicated its work completely to social satire is Titanic. True to its tradition of showing respect for no one and nothing, the magazine shows pictures of German men captioned "Muhammad" on its homepage. The headlines above the pictures say: "We don't [accept] the ban on 'picturing'"

For liberal democracies it is very important to be able to laugh about even the holiest subjects in life, such as the Pope and even the most honored persons in history, like famous German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or world renowned composer and pianist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This is why satire as an integral part of the freedom of expression is protected by law in developed democracies. The weekly German TV-magazine Extra 3 stands as an example of the longing for spiritual freedom. To create its sketches, even Nazi symbols can be used by the magazine's editorial staff -- in Germany.

Related Articles
Indonesians Up in Arms Over 'Blasphemous' Cartoons
Cartoon Controversy Not Free Press Issue
Creating the Cartoon Clash
Iranian Newspaper to Host Holocaust Cartoon Contest
Hong Kong Muslims to Protest Cartoons
Pictures of Blasphemia in Europe
Double Standards in Cartoon Controversy?

The row over newspaper cartoons has intensified as European journalists refuse to give in to the wrath of Arab world. What is your take on this?  (2006-02-06 ~ 2006-02-20)
Freedom of the press should never be compromised
Religious sensitivities should be duly respected
More information about nazi propaganda during the Third Reich
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Alexander Krabbe

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