of expression today in Denmark is not
what it used to be...
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
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
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
editor of Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that published the cartoons
the prophet Muhammed. No doubt it is sometimes difficult for reporters
and editors in the region to fully grasp how freedom of speech and
exercized in a country like Denmark. But certainly it would seem
that the Danish government simply has no authority under the law
intervene directly in the business of the free press. Some media
Middle East has a lot to learn about the inner workings of Western
The other side of the coin is that Western media also has a lot
about the culture and religion of the Muslim minorities living
countries. In fact, the Danish media failed in living up to its responsibilities of being fair and balanced in its coverage of
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
presumably was under some kind of threat in Denmark from Islam.
was this threat?
The cartoons were a deliberate provocation meant to ridicule, scorn
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
pictures of the prophet in a childrens' book, but we really do
whether that is the true story. These three illustrators remain
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
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
Muhammed - well then it is indeed funny that 12 of the 30 drawers
invited to submit caricatures by the culture editor actually agreed to
cartoon and sign it with their name. Apparently, they were not
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
majority can do whatever we want to, we can kick you while you
and you can't do anything about it. But this is tyranny of the
The minority cannot really in this situation exercise its right
of expression. Freedom of speech, I believe, has never been absolute.
In a democratic society freedom of the press is also meant to protect
rights of minorities, the right to dissent and the media should
be seen as a forum for dialogue, in particular in multicultural
Members of the Muslim community in Denmark protested. What could
Well, you can go to the prosecutor's office and claim that the
are in violation of the blasphemy article in the Danish penal code.
can also claim that the cartoons are a violation of the racism
They did both, and were turned down, even though when you look
first article, it is pretty obvious that Jyllands-Posten intended
ridicule, pour scorn on and show contempt for the symbols of a
community - precisely what the law forbids. That is exactly what
accompanying the cartoons said.
Sometime in January the Muslim community decided to appeal the
a state prosecutor. Interestingly, one would think that he would
been leisurely making up his mind while the storm was gathering
hell broke loose in late January and early February. But no - he
evaluating the pros and cons.
There is general agreement that from the beginning of this affair
Danish media have sought out and quoted the fundamentalists on
of the issue. So the sourcing was a small group of radical imams
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
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
succesful in limiting the inflow of refugees and immigrants to
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
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
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
are feeble expressions of solidarity from abroad. The vast majority
still believe that there was nothing wrong in what Jyllands-Posten did
vast majority supports the goverment's handling of the affair.
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.