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World: Danes Reflect On Cartoon Crisis

Protests in front of the Danish Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan turn violent, 6 February. (AFP) What prompted the Danish "Jyllands-Posten" to publish 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad? And do other Danish journalists think the cartoons should have been published? Farangiz Najibullah of RFE/RL's Tajik Service spoke with two leading figures in the world of Danish journalism: Jorgen Bang, head of the Department of Information and Media Science at the University of Aarhus; and Mogens Blichern, the president of the Danish Union of Journalists. RFE/RL spoke first with Jorgen Bang.

RFE/RL: In your opinion, is it professionally correct to use press freedom to offend other people?

Jorgen Bang: No, I think not. My problem with these cartoons is that it is a sort of media event. I was very much in favor of defending [the British writer] Salman Rushdie [who spent years in hiding after Iranian religious leaders in 1989 issued a fatwa calling for his execution for blasphemy and apostasy]. I was very much in favor of defending [the murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo] Van Gogh and his movie [about violence against women in Islamic societies], because they had an issue. They wanted to communicate something to the public.

In the case of the Danish newspaper, "Jyllands-Posten," they sort of self-invented the idea of now 'now we want to do something for freedom of speech.' There's nothing outside that made any sense of bringing [out] these cartoons. If there had been an event, if there had been something to push and they made a cartoon of it, fine. But now it made 12 cartoons just to provoke and see how long can we push the item of freedom of speech. That's why my problem with these cartoons.

RFE/RL: What would you do if you were [the] editor of "Jyllands-Posten" and they would bring you these cartoons? What would you do?

Bang: I wouldn't have bought them. I would have analyzed the situation and come to the conclusion that this isn’t the time, or that there isn't a journalistic reason for doing it, because they, the journalists, invented the reason, by making it into a media event. If there had been some outside reason for doing it, I could see why they could do it.

RFE/RL: What should we journalists do to keep a balance between freedom of expression and respect for other people's values?

Bang: I think in any situation one has to consider why we want to bring [out] this news right now and is there news to bring [out]. Here, there wasn't any news, but they thought they would like to raise this discussion about freedom of speech. I think that it's fine to raise a discussion about freedom of speech and also to raise discussion about self-censorship but [not] to have to raise it by a provocation. And I felt that there they were stepping about the limits that I would have chosen.

RFE/RL: Those people who made the decision about printing these cartoons, were they well aware of the sensitivity of the issue for Muslims?

Bang: It's definite that they didn't understand the full [impact] of their decision. I think they are surprised, as most Danes are, at this reaction that has come out of it. That's one thing. The background for what happened was that there was an author of a child's book about Muhammad and he wanted an illustrator and there was no one that wanted to put their name forward as an illustrator. Now that book has been published and the illustrator is anonymous.

And because of this discussion, that a lot of artists who were going to make the illustrations were afraid of mentioning their names, then "Jyllands-Posten" thought 'here, we have an issue of self-censorship and we, as a newspaper, we want to show that we dare to do what people, what the illustrators didn't dare to do.' So then they started contacting cartoonists and saying 'do you want to come in and make this cartoon?' And I don't know how much they paid them, but they were surely paid for the cartoons. And then they had these 12 cartoons and they started the issue.

It's a sort of event for saying 'we want to be progressive and open and to say we are able to do this.' And they didn't really think about the consequences, I'm afraid. They were asking some experts whether this would be against the law and they were asking some cultural experts about how much fuss it would make. And some of them said that 'you are on the dangerous side by doing this' but someone else said 'arrgh, no one really reads Danish newspapers outside in the world. They don't understand the language, so it won't give any problems.'

RFE/RL: Now, after all this fuss was created, how are ordinary Danes reacting to the whole incident?

Bang: There was an investigation, in fact, done before a debate on Danish television last night and they say that the Danish population is split 50:50. Fifty percent think that they should not have done it and it is a catastrophe that has happened; and 50 percent say: 'Here we stand. We are Danes and we want to defend freedom of speech.' So it's not really a majority either way.

The View Of The Danish Union Of Journalists' Morgen Blichern

RFE/RL: Can we journalists use our right to free speech to offend other people?

Mogens Blichern: It is very important not to solve this problem by changing press freedom. We are not going to cut slices off press freedom. Of course there are ethical rules and we have to follow the ethical rules that we have in each of our countries. And if somebody is not following these rules, we have press councils and we have courts to take care of this. This the only way to take care of press freedom; that is through press councils, which are self-regulating, and through the courts…We cannot, we must not cut off slices off press freedom.

RFE/RL: In your opinion, was it ethically, professionally correct to publish these cartoons in a Danish newspaper despite knowing that it would offend so many people around the world and that it would offend their values?

Blichern: The original idea of these cartoons [emerged from] an internal debate in Denmark about self-censorship. The newspaper and the cartoonists wanted to put the focus on self-censorship. They didn't want to harm anybody by these cartoons and I know they feel very strongly that the cartoons have harmed people in the way that they have, but it was never been their idea to harm anybody by these cartoons.

RFE/RL: What was the idea?

Blichern: It was to put the focus on self-censorship in Denmark, nothing else.

RFE/RL: How should we journalists keep a balance between freedom of expression and respect to other people's values? What is your personal and professional opinion?

Blichern: Every journalist must care of that. It is impossible to have an international idea about how exactly to do it. There are ethical rules in every country and you have to follow those rules. Of course, everybody has a responsibility and now all of us are responsible for solving this problem. We can do that through dialogue, not through declarations.

RE/RL: British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said we all respect freedom of speech but there is no obligation to insult or to be inflammatory. What do you say to that?

Blichern: We have to respect freedom of speech and press freedom and we have to respect freedom of religion. And I will say now that there is a lot of other issues in this than these 12 cartoons.

RFE/RL: But these 12 cartoons have made so much fuss now and they have become an issue. What should be done about damage limitation?

Blichern: That is exactly what I think is the right thing to do now: dialogue. We really have to look forward now and to keep touch with each other. Have meetings. Tell each other stories about our situations, to get to more mutual understanding. We need many meetings. We need a lot of conferences. We need a lot of situations where we can get to understand each other much better than we have done. And it is quite clear that we need that…Through all that has happened, we have realized that we really need dialogue. We need dialogue. It is a hard way, but it is the only way.

The Cartoon Controversy

The Cartoon Controversy

Islamabad residents protesting against the Prophet Muhammad cartoons on February 15 (epa)

An Unfolding Conflict

19 February 2006: A full-page apology by "Jyllands-Posten," dated 5 February, appears in papers in Saudi Arabia. Churches in Libya, Nigeria, and Pakistan are attacked, as too is the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia.

18 February: Forty-five die in Nigeria as churches, hotels, and shops are torched in a predominantly Muslim northern state. Roberto Calderoli resigns from the Italian cabinet after being blamed for riots in Libya that ended with the destruction of the Italian Embassy and the loss of 10 lives. The Libyan interior minister and local police chiefs are sacked for using disproportionate force to quell the riots.

17 February: Ten Libyan protestors are killed during a demonstration that culminates with the burning of the Italian Embassy in Tripoli. Protestors link the demonstrations to the decision of an Italian minister to wear T-shirts showing the cartoons.

16 February: The Russian media watchdog pledges to take a tough line against any organization accused of "insulting religious feelings."

15 February: The Danish government says the Iraqi government wants Danish troops to remain. A far-right Italian minister, Roberto Calderoli, says he plans to wear T-shirts emblazoned with some of the "Jyllands-Posten" cartoons. In Pakistan, three more protestors are killed, one in Lahore and two in Peshawar, as tens of thousands demonstrate.

14 February: Pakistani police shoot dead two protesters in Lahore. In Iran, crowds attack the British and German embassies. Political leaders in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah call for Danish troops to leave the country. In Israel, a cartoonist launches a competition for the best anti-Semitic cartoons by Jews themselves. In Europe, the Portugese president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, promises support for Denmark and the democratic system in a dispute that reminds him of his country's dictatorial past.

13 February: A leading Iranian newspaper, "Hamshahri," invites cartoons about the Holocaust in a competition aimed at testing the limits of free speech in the West.

12 February: Intelligence reports suggest Danes in Indonesia are under threat. Denmark urges its nationals to leave the country. It had previously made similar appeals to Danes in many Muslim countries.

10 February: Thousands of Malayans protest, as Western and Muslim political, cultural, and religious leaders gather to discuss differences between the Western and Muslim worlds.

9 February: The Swedish government forces offline a website that asked readers to submit their own cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

8 February: Security forces open fire on protestors in the Afghan city of Qalat, killing four, on a day of angry and sometimes violent scenes around the world. Washington accuses the Syrian and Iranian governments of inciting violence.

7 February: Iran's largest newspaper invites cartoons of the Holocaust, saying it wants to test the limits of Western freedom of expression.

6 February: Widespread unrest over the cartoons reported in Afghanistan. One person was reported killed and four wounded in Laghman Province.

6 February: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expresses "distress" over the publication of the cartoons, but condemns the violent reactions in the Muslim world.

5 February: The Danish Consulate in Beirut, Lebanon, is torched.

4 February: Mobs burn the Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Chilean embassies in Syria. Protests in Denmark turn violent.

1 February: Papers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain run reprints of the cartoons in a show of solidarity.

30 January: The EU says it will take World Trade Organization (WTO) action if the boycott persists. Several Islamic groups, including Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, call for a worldwide boycott of Danish products. Masked gunmen in storm EU office in Gaza. The Danish paper apologizes.

29 January: "Jyllands-Posten" prints a statement in Arabic saying the drawings were published in line with freedom of expression and not a campaign against Islam. Palestinians burn Danish flags and Libya announces it will close its embassy in Denmark.

28 January: The Danish company Arla places advertisements in Middle Eastern newspapers to try to stop boycott of its products.

27 January: Thousands denounce the cartoons during Friday prayers in Iraq.

26 January: Saudi Arabia recalls its ambassador to Denmark and initiates a boycott of Danish goods.

10 January 2006: The cartoons are reprinted by the Norwegian newspaper "Magazinet."

14 November: Jamaat-e-Islami, a Pakistan-based group, protests in Islamabad.

20 October: Ambassadors of 10 Muslim countries complain to Danish Prime Minister. "Jyllands-Posten" reports that illustrators have received death threats.

30 September 2005: The Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten" publishes 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

(compiled by RFE/RL)

See also:

Calming The Storm

Former Jailed Iranian Cartoonist Discusses Muhammad Caricatures

Western, Eastern Media View Cartoon Crisis As Test Of Values