"Behead those who insult Islam " Most North American news outlets submit to Muslim threats and decline to publish cartoons
February 8, 2006
Controversial Cartoons Stir Media Debate
By ANGELA CHARLTON
PARIS -- Unflattering, some say offensive or sacrilegious, newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad are casting the spotlight on the battle between free speech and religious beliefs.
The conflict is focused on Europe, where the cartoons _ and the 300-year-old concept of a free press _ originated, and where large Muslim populations make the drawings particularly divisive. Newspapers elsewhere, from North America to Asia, have largely avoided the caricatures.
The question of whether to publish has divided newsrooms, cutting to the heart of what it means to be free media in today's interconnected, multicultural world.
"All freedoms, including the freedom of speech, come with responsibility. ... Having the right to cause offense does not make it right to do so," said Terry Davis, the head of Europe's leading human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe.
Others take offense at the very attempt to impose pious respect of the prophet.
The chief editor of a French daily that reprinted the drawings last week, Serge Faubert, invoked the 18th-century free thinker Voltaire in his defense of France Soir's publication: "I don't agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
The managing editor of France Soir, Jacques Lefranc, was fired after the publication by the newspaper's Egyptian owner.
But others ask whether Voltaire, controversial even in Enlightenment-era France, is compatible with 21st-century Europe.
Some Muslims in Europe _ France alone has 5 million _ see unfettered free media as part of democracy. But others take offense at any representation of their prophet, favorable or not. Some Christian and Jewish groups have joined Muslims in condemning the drawings.
In a reflection of the complexity of the issue, Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper offered understanding of the rage over the caricatures.
"It is impossible not to understand the feelings of insult among Muslims worldwide," it editorialized. "The West's preaching of the value of multiculturalism cannot be taken seriously if it does not include ... religious minorities and Muslims and Christians alike. No society can remain apathetic to offensive publications that insult values held sacred by certain groups within it."
On the other end of the scale, the British tabloid press has been especially outraged at the Muslim world's reaction to the issue.
"The myth about Muslim tolerance needs to be exploded," wrote Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail, his column published beside a photograph of a protester carrying a sign saying "Behead those who insult Islam."
"Muslims should not be allowed to dictate what is and what is not published about them," he wrote. However, no British newspaper has published the cartoons.
European governments are caught up in the battle.
They cannot backtrack on media freedoms, so fundamental to democracy, but they must soothe religious believers. The dilemma deepened as European embassies and other targets were attacked in the Muslim world as symbols of the decadence that could produce such drawings.
The caricatures began as an exercise in self-censorship last fall by a Danish editor curious about how far cartoonists would let themselves go in portraying the prophet.
To many Muslims, the assignment itself was blasphemy. The resulting drawings, which most agree were artistically unremarkable, ranged from prosaic to literally incendiary, including one in which the prophet's turban was a ticking bomb.
Dozens of European newspapers and magazines reprinted them, saying that the issue was not the cartoons themselves but whether or not newspapers should be allowed to publish them.
"It is modernity at stake now," said Robert Menard, director of media rights group Reporters Without Borders. "We must explain the distinctions between church and state, and between the press and the state, to our colleagues in the Arab world."
Newspapers in the United States have largely avoided publishing the cartoons. The Philadelphia Inquirer published one of the drawings as part of a story about U.S. media not showing the image.
About two dozen people picketed the Inquirer on Monday in protest.
"It's disrespectful to us as a people," Asim Abdur-Rashid, an imam with the Majlis Ash'Shura, an umbrella group for mosques in the region, told the Inquirer in a story that appeared on the newspaper's Web site. "It's disrespectful to our prophet to imply that he's a prophet of violence."
Amanda Bennett, the Inquirer's editor, and deputy managing editor Carl Lavin talked with the protesters outside the building and said the newspaper stood by its decision.
"Neither I nor the newspaper meant any disrespect to their religion or their prophet," Bennett said. "I told them I was actually really proud of them for exercising their right to freedom of speech."
The newspaper contacted a range of people from Muslim theologians to experts in journalistic ethics before publishing, according to a statement released later by Bennett and managing editor Anne Gordon.
"To us, this was a moment for newspaper journalists to do what they are uniquely qualified to do in this country _ to lay out all sides of the issue for a well-informed public to debate and discuss," they said.
The Associated Press has chosen not to distribute the drawings.
"We don't distribute content that is known to be offensive, with rare exceptions. This is not one of those exceptions. We made the decision in December and have looked at the issue again this week and reaffirmed that decision not to distribute," Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said in response to queries about the cartoons.
Among American television networks, ABC News ran images of the cartoons, very briefly, on "World News Tonight" and "Nightline" on Thursday.
NBC has been airing a brief picture that shows only part of the cartoon.
"We felt that in order to convey the essence of the story, it was not necessary to show the entire cartoon," said spokeswoman Allison Gollust.
On the other hand, CBS News decided not to use the image on any of its broadcasts, following a lengthy discussion, spokeswoman Sandra Genelius said.
"The feeling was that we were able to tell the story without actually showing it," Genelius said.
CNN has been using a picture of the cartoon with the face of Muhammad blurred out, both on its U.S. and international networks.
"CNN's role is to cover the controversy surrounding the publication of the cartoon and not to unnecessarily fan the flames," said CNN spokeswoman Laurie Goldberg.
The large dailies in Canada said they did not see the point of reprinting cartoons that could offend many of the country's 750,000 Muslims.
"On the question of can we run it, yes we can," Douglas Kelly, editor in chief of the National Post, wrote in an editorial last week. "The question is, should we run it? The depiction of this image in a newspaper is offensive to some readers and that is of concern."
In Australia, one newspaper carried a reprint. Brisbane's Courier-Mail included a low-key cartoon Saturday to illustrate a story about the violence surrounding the issue.
Australia's government has urged caution in any decision to publish the cartoons, but New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark criticized two newspapers in her country _ the Dominion Post of Wellington and the Christchurch Press _ for reprinting them.
Media draw the line on running cartoonsBy Peter Johnson, USA TODAY Controversial Danish cartoons lampooning the Muslim prophet Mohammed, which have led to riots abroad, also have set off intense debates in U.S. newsrooms.
Editorial calls to not run the cartoons are raising questions about whether mainstream media are practicing self-censorship out of fear of reprisals from a vocal religious group.
National TV networks such as NBC, CBS and CNN have not run the cartoons, nor did the Associated Press and most newspapers, including USA TODAY, The Washington Post or The New York Times.
But Fox News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, AustinAmerican-Statesman and New York Sun ran some of the 12 cartoons that were published in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September. The cartoons are widely available online.
Fox News Sunday aired one of the controversial cartoons, depicting the prophet Mohammed wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. "My feeling was, if we're going to tell the story about people rioting and burning down embassies, it's part of the story to know what it is that has caused such outrage," anchor Chris Wallace said.
He likened the decision to news outlets running Andres Serrano's controversial photograph in the late '80s of a crucifix floating in urine, even though the image offended Christians. "It doesn't mean that you endorse it," Wallace said. "It doesn't mean you're being insensitive. It means you're a journalist and you're telling the story."
Violence erupted across the Middle East, Asia and Africa Tuesday over the drawings. Reuters reported that four Afghan protesters were shot dead by police and six Norwegian soldiers were hurt in Afghanistan when rioters broke into a Norwegian compound. Embassies of Norway and Denmark in the Middle East have been attacked by demonstrators.
Amanda Bennett, editor of the Inquirer, which ran a cartoon Saturday, told protesters outside the newspaper's offices Monday that although she respected their right to protest, publishing controversial material "is what newspapers are in the business to do. We educate people, we inform them, we spark discussion. It is not only our profession, it is our obligation."
ABC News ran an image of a cartoon on various broadcasts last week but stopped in follow-ups. "We understand the sensitivity of this issue, particularly among our Muslim viewers," ABC News spokeswoman Cathy Levine said. "We feel we can report this story now without needing to continually show the offending image."
At USA TODAY, "we concluded that we could cover the issue comprehensively without republishing the cartoon, something clearly offensive to many Muslims. It's not censorship, self or otherwise," said deputy world editor Jim Michaels.
New York Times editor Bill Keller said that he and his staff concluded after a "long and vigorous debate" that publishing the cartoon would be "perceived as a particularly deliberate insult" by Muslims. "Like any decision to withhold elements of a story, this was neither easy nor entirely satisfying, but it feels like the right thing to do."
Bob Steele, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, said, "This is one of those case where there can be multiple, justifiable ethical right answers. In the post-9/11 era, these matters take on a whole different level of urgency. The ethical decisions editors and broadcast executives face are tougher than ever."
Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center, said, "A lot of editors are making the decision to say, 'In this case I can fully inform my readers without having to show an image that I know will offend a number of others.' And I think that the descriptions I've seen (of the cartoon) fully tell me what was in those images."
That's the call that Rome Hartman, producer of The CBS Evening News, made last week when violence erupted over the cartoons — a call that he said prompted plenty of debate within CBS.
Refusing to run the cartoons "should not be seen as somehow sanctioning or kowtowing to a violent minority, since the vast majority of Muslims would find the depictions of Mohammed inherently offensive," Hartman said.
The American-Statesman published the cartoon Friday, and 17 out of 18 readers responding on the paper's website supported the call.
"It is one thing to respect other people's faiths and religion, but it goes beyond where I would go to accept their taboos in the context of our freedoms and our society," American Statesman editor Rich Oppell told Editor & Publisher. "I think we have struck a good median on this."