From the Archives: Free Press has Obligations

By | January 15, 2015 at 5:11 pm | No comments | Archives | Tags: , ,

In September, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published 12 editorial cartoons, several of which satirized the prophet Mohammed. PEN Canada issued a press release which recommended restraint in order to create a space for critical debate, while defending the right to publish the cartoons. Subsequently, PEN took a strong stand against complaints to human rights commissions in Alberta and Ontario against journalist Ezra Levant, Maclean’s magazine, and writer Mark Steyn for publishing the cartoons. We also supported calls for the removal of subsection 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act which states that it is discriminatory when an individual or group says or writes anything that is “likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.” The following piece, written by then president, Constance Rooke, was first published in the February 10th, 2006 edition of the Toronto Star. 

Statement on Cartoons Depicting Mohammed

The furor over recent Danish cartoons depicting Muhammed is deeply troubling for many people of good will who passionately support freedom of expression, who are appalled by terrorism, and who are sickened by the conflating of Islamic terrorists with Muslims generally. Thus, the publication of these cartoons has raised important questions about the limits that may be placed on freedom of expression.

The charter of International PEN — a leading human rights association of writers and other strong supporters of free speech — contains two clauses that are worth consideration in this situation. One calls upon PEN members to foster “good understanding and mutual respect among nations . . . to do their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds, and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in the world.” The other speaks to PEN’s support for “unhampered transmission of thought” and for a free press; it goes on to say that “since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.”

Most of us in Canada will arrive at our own positions on the Danish cartoons without having seen them, since newspapers here (apart from Le Devoir, which printed one cartoon) have chosen not to publish the cartoons. One cartoon depicts Mohammed wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a lit fuse; another shows Mohammed warning suicide bombers that paradise has run out of virgins. Defenders of the cartoons have argued that they satirically depict only that version of Islam constructed by terrorists to justify their actions. But this is an argument whose subtleties are easily missed, particularly in our present incendiary context.

That the cartoons would be profoundly offensive should have been understood, as the depiction of Mohammed in any form is regarded as blasphemy by most Muslims, and these are notably inflammatory depictions. Reasonable persons may disagree on whether a line was crossed in the Danish newspaper’s publication of the original cartoons, or in their republication in several other countries; on how heavily the likely consequences should have been weighed; and on whether “voluntary restraint” in this case would have represented capitulation or simple respect for others.

PEN Canada deplores violence, and we are united in our strong defence both of the right to free speech and of the responsibilities associated with “voluntary restraint” in the interest of civil society.

 We are deeply alarmed at the escalation of tensions, and with International PEN call on all sides of the dispute to refrain from taking any action that might inflame tensions further. The situation urgently requires a space for debate on these critical issues in which all may express their views without fear of censorship, imprisonment, or even threat to life.Political cartoons, both in the West and in the Islamic world, regularly employ broad caricatures and gross exaggeration. They offend individuals and groups with great frequency and, at the same time, make important contributions to political discourse. The normal give-and-take of editors and cartoonists seeks to negotiate this terrain, and sometimes results in calling a halt to the publication of cartoons that are regarded as being in egregiously bad taste, gratuitously insulting, morally reprehensible, or in violation of limits established by law. On other occasions, considerations such as a belief in the merit of the cartoons in question or a desire to strike a blow for freedom of the press will carry the day.

Whatever the intentions of those responsible for the creation and publication of these cartoons may have been, it is clear that great damage has been done. Good people have been badly hurt. Belief that the West is increasingly prepared to countenance disrespect of Islam has been fuelled. It is intensely worrying to see that some of those who defend the cartoons most vociferously under the banner of free speech have engaged in divisive, broadly anti-Muslim rhetoric. And Islamic extremists wanting to accelerate a “clash of civilizations” have taken full advantage of the situation. Other, far more insulting cartoons have been circulated in order to fuel anti-Western sentiment. Death threats have been issued, and embassies have been torched.

PEN Canada deplores violence, and we are united in our strong defence both of the right to free speech and of the responsibilities associated with “voluntary restraint” in the interest of civil society. We are deeply alarmed at the escalation of tensions, and with International PEN call on all sides of the dispute to refrain from taking any action that might inflame tensions further. The situation urgently requires a space for debate on these critical issues in which all may express their views without fear of censorship, imprisonment, or even threat to life.

PEN Canada often defends speech with which many of us strongly disagree. If we did not, the principle of free speech would be meaningless. Healthy debate has been the way of our society, within the bounds of decency and the law. PEN Canada supports the right of a free press to publish these cartoons, but also believes that a wise consideration of the principle of “voluntary restraint” would have led to better decisions. Finally, we urge all Canadians as they enter into dialogue on this matter to support two great principles on which our democracy depends: the right to free speech, and respect for the dignity and beliefs of others. Both must be upheld.

Photo credit: Jony Cunha

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