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Freedom of expression today in Denmark is not
what it used to be...


The DPI/NGO Section held its weekly NGO briefing on 2 March 2006, which looked at the Role of the Media in Advancing Cross-Cultural Understanding. H.E. Juan Antonio Yáñez-Barnuevo, Permanent Representative of Spain to the United Nations; H.E. Baki Ilkin, Permanent Representative of Turkey to the United Nations; Prof. Tomaz Mastnak, Director, Office of the Alliance of Civilizations; Ahmed Younis, National Director, Muslim Public Affairs Council; Sr. Joan Kirby, Temple of Understanding, and Chair, NGO/DPI Executive Committee; Aberrahim Foukara, United Nations Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera; and Martin Burcharth, US Correspondent, Information (Danish newspaper), discussed the Alliance of Civilizations and how the media contributed to promoting mutual understanding between different cultures and beliefs.

Below, we would like to reflect on Martin Burcharth's, US Correspondent, Information (Danish newspaper); insightful and crystal clear views related to "recent international crisis over the Danish cartoons" issue, which heoriginally presented during the UN/DPI-NGO weekly briefings on March 2, 2006.

We are thankful to Mr. Burcharth's for sharing his ideas with the Light Millennium, too.

The media in the Middle East and wider Muslim world certainly did not look
pretty during the recent international crisis over the Danish cartoons. There were demands that the Danish government intervene and sack the editor of Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammed. No doubt it is sometimes difficult for reporters and editors in the region to fully grasp how freedom of speech and press is exercized in a country like Denmark. But certainly it would seem obvious that the Danish government simply has no authority under the law to intervene directly in the business of the free press. Some media in the Middle East has a lot to learn about the inner workings of Western democracies.

The other side of the coin is that Western media also has a lot to learn about the culture and religion of the Muslim minorities living in their countries. In fact, the Danish media failed in living up to its responsibilities of being fair and balanced in its coverage of the cartoon crisis. Now, there is a lot of soul searching going on in Danish newspapers and electronic media.

One thing that the media emphasized over and over was that Jyllands-Posten had published the cartoons in order to defend freedom of speech which presumably was under some kind of threat in Denmark from Islam. But where was this threat?

The cartoons were a deliberate provocation meant to ridicule, scorn and show contempt for the Muslim minority in Denmark. The culture editor Flemming Rose said precisely so in the text accompanying the cartoons. He also referred to three illustrators who allegedly had refused to draw pictures of the prophet in a childrens' book, but we really do not know whether that is the true story. These three illustrators remain anonymous.

Was the publication of the cartoons exclusively meant to test whether illustrators practice selfcensorship for fear of being harmed by Islamists? As the crisis unfolded this was the argument promoted by editor-in-chief Carsten Juste and culture editor Rose. All forgotten was the intention expressed in the text next to the cartoons - that is to show the Muslim minority that in a democracy with freedom of expression they must be able to endure ridicule and scorn for their holy prophet.

There is something strange about this argument of self censorship. If the idea were to test whether Danish illustrators fear drawing the prophet Muhammed - well then it is indeed funny that 12 of the 30 drawers invited to submit caricatures by the culture editor actually agreed to produce a cartoon and sign it with their name. Apparently, they were not afraid. From a journalistic angle it seems there was no story. Still, the newspaper went ahead.

The only explanation seems to be that the ulterior motive was different, namely to provoke the Muslim minority - that is to tell them: We the majority can do whatever we want to, we can kick you while you lie down and you can't do anything about it. But this is tyranny of the majority. The minority cannot really in this situation exercise its right of freedom of expression. Freedom of speech, I believe, has never been absolute. In a democratic society freedom of the press is also meant to protect the rights of minorities, the right to dissent and the media should certainly be seen as a forum for dialogue, in particular in multicultural and multiethnic societies.

Members of the Muslim community in Denmark protested. What could they do? Well, you can go to the prosecutor's office and claim that the cartoons are in violation of the blasphemy article in the Danish penal code. You can also claim that the cartoons are a violation of the racism article. They did both, and were turned down, even though when you look at the first article, it is pretty obvious that Jyllands-Posten intended to ridicule, pour scorn on and show contempt for the symbols of a religious community - precisely what the law forbids. That is exactly what the text accompanying the cartoons said.

Sometime in January the Muslim community decided to appeal the decision to a state prosecutor. Interestingly, one would think that he would not have been leisurely making up his mind while the storm was gathering and all hell broke loose in late January and early February. But no - he is still evaluating the pros and cons.

There is general agreement that from the beginning of this affair all Danish media have sought out and quoted the fundamentalists on both sides of the issue. So the sourcing was a small group of radical imams who are not born in Denmark and some of whom do not speak Danish well. At times it was as if they were the only voice of the Danish muslims in the media, although the majority of Muslims is rather moderate and not very religious. In this way, the media drew a stereotype of the Danish Muslim and contributed to the impression that they simply do not understand Danish humour - that is Danish culture.

The sourcing on the other side tended to be spokesmen for the anti-immigrant right as well as members of a government who has been succesful in limiting the inflow of refugees and immigrants to Denmark as well as in limiting their rights. These were the voices the Danes heard and read in their media. No surprise here, because when it comes to immigrants and in particular the Muslim minority, the anti-immigrant Danish Peoples' Party has set the tone and dominated the debate for years now.

The result  was that the center in Danish politics disappeared. Either you were on the side of the imams or on the side of government and the xenophobic party, which lends it parliamentary support. The moderate voices were hard to come by in the Danish media; the fundamentalists were all over the place. 

Only in recent weeks, after the crisis abated, have the moderates regained their voice. But there is still a long way to go. Danes are afraid. They feel misunderstood and surrounded. They are aghast at what they believe are feeble expressions of solidarity from abroad. The vast majority still believe that there was nothing wrong in what Jyllands-Posten did and the vast majority supports the goverment's handling of the affair. Dissent from this line is met with great hostility. People believe that now is the time when Danes have to put any disagreement behind them and stand together in defending our nation.

In other words freedom of expression today in Denmark is not what it used to be.

_ . _

Martin Burcharth is the US correspondent for the Danish daily Information.

This is adapted from a talk at the United Nations 2. March 2006.

LIGHTMILLENNIUM.ORG -6th Anniversay, #17th Issue
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