Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Here we go again

Warning! Several of these links contain images of the prophet Muhammad!

Just when you thought 12 little cartoons couldn't stir up any more chaos.

Today, Danish newspapers reprinted the cartoon of Muhammad that, along with 11 others printed in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper three years ago, sparked a wave of violence across the Muslim world.

The move was a response to the arrest of three people for allegedly plotting to kill the cartoonist, who's been under high surveillance since the fateful publication.

"Regardless of whether Jyllands-Posten at the time used freedom of speech unwisely and with damaging consequences, the paper deserves unconditional solidarity when it is threatened with terror," read an editorial in another paper which also reprinted the offending art.

I don't get it. If the decision was "unwise" in the first place -- presumably because it led to violence -- how is it now a wise decision as a reaction to violence?

Is publishing purely for the sake of offending a journalistic right? Is it ever a duty? If freedom of expression ends anywhere, it seems to me that inciting mass violence ought to be that place.

The tangled issue has reached Canada, where conservative publisher Ezra Levant is facing a human rights complaint for printing the cartoons two years ago. In a Toronto Star editorial, Kelly Toughill makes a good case for keeping human rights commissions out of journalism, but steers clear of the ethics of Levant's move.

Meanwhile, in a less nuanced analysis, FOX news has published several more antiquated depictions of Muhammad -- in a news story about Muslims' outrage over the inclusion of the very same images on a Wikipedia page. "People are very upset over a thing which we will now proceed to do." Very neutral, FOX.


Claude Adams said...

"If freedom of expression ends anywhere, it seems to me that inciting mass violence ought to be that place."

I read this over and over again, and the presumption here bothers me. Without thinking very hard, I can imagine several instances where news that "incit(es)mass violence" may ethically be published. Reporting about government indifference to climate change has, it can be argued, incited violent protest, as did calls for People Power in Marcos-era Philippines, criticism of the poll tax in Thatcher-era Britain, and so on. Let me ask the question another way: Should the fear of "inciting violence" inhibit freedom of expression?
Or should those who find themselves incited to violence not ask hard questions of themselves and the institutions that would licence or condone this behavior?

Catherine said...

Good point, Claude. It's disturbing to think of the chill factor possible if we're constantly afraid of inciting mass violence.

And of course, it's impossible for a journalist to know the results of her story. Inciting civil unrest should not be shied away from because of these fears.

But in the case of the Muhammad cartoons, it's been demonstrated that the immediate result of the cartoons' publication was violence. Now, when a publisher makes that move, they can't act surprised if people die. Is it really worth it to make their point?