EBU: Does the media have the right to offend?

Lisbeth Knudsen, the managing director of Danish Radio led things off with a quote from Bob Dylan: “Something is going on. You don’t know what it is. Do you Mrs Jones?”

She said that the world probably still doesn’t know what is going on in the wake of publishing Muhammad cartoons. DR published the cartoons. It was not merely a statement on freedom of speech, she said, and added, that they felt that it was important to let people know what they were talking about.

She said: We do not recognise what we see. We saw cartoons spreading over the world. We saw embassies on fire. The only thing we could do was to try to figure out what was going on. Was this just hate of western values of freedom of speech and democracy?

Governments might have used the cartoons to allow their people to protest against the West instead of some social or economic injustice in their country.

Everyone agrees that the newspaper in Denmark had the right to print the cartoon under the freedom of speech. But should have they?

The argument the Danish newspaper made was to try to show self-censorship that people were exercising so as not to offend Muslims. But she then catalogued the fall out. The Danish police have investigated more than 150 death threats after the cartoons were published. Danes now are seen as anti-Muslim, Ms Knudsen said. But democratic Muslims have risen to denounce the radical imams.

She said that some in Denmark were upset by an apology by their prime minister and some asked:

Should we show understanding for a religion that puts women rights under pressure? Should we show understanding for sharia law far removed from Western values?

Lessons? News travels globally no matter what the market. If something hits the right time, anything can catch fire. Even old news can travel, she said, noting the cartoons were printed in the autumn.

We have taken the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression for granted. But no more.

Freedom of speech is not negotiable, but it has ethical limits. Freedom of religion is not negotiable either. It is through vigorous and peaceful debate that we can have this understanding.

The editor in chief of the Danish newspaper that printed the cartoons. said no one now in Denmark will print cartoons on Muhammed for some years because of impact on Danish foreign policy, exports and image abroad.

But she added: The debate over Islam, freedom of speech now has new voices.

And Danish Radio has changed its views on coverage of Muslims in Denmark. We shouldn’t always go to imams to ask them why young people in suburbs are doing something stupid. We did so because we didn’t have any sources. We wouldn’t call Christian priests to ask them why people were doing something stupid. And she said that it was the responsibility of the media to bring different voices, different opinions to their coverage.

The threat against the freedom fo the press is a constant one. It does not work to say that we have different cultures and different religions and for that reason we shouldn’t print something. We must focus on the fact that extremists take religion for their own political reasons, she said.

Hosam El Sokkari from BBC Arabic was the next to speak. Before he joined the BBC, he was actually a cartoonist. He then showed cartoons in an Egyptian newspaper and the 12 cartoons themselves.

There are many theories on how the cartoons spread in the Middle East. One theory says that a blogger in Egypt, Sam who writes Rantings of a Sandmonkey, was said to have published the cartoons and asked how long it would be before protests. Another says that the controversy must have started in Saudi Arabia because the first official protests came there. Some say it began after Danish imams took the cartoons to the Middle East.

We all saw pictures of the protests. But he said that there were many other comments, and he showed a commentary that said that these protests misrepresented Islam.

He said the Middle East has become represented by an angry fundamentalist, but it is a much more complex debate, a much more complex situation. He said a majority of Muslims were offended, but he said it was not a majority that took part in the angry demonstrations.

It only takes a few 100 or a few 1000 protesters to fill a TV screen.

He said that many Muslims were upset by what they saw as double standards in the western idea of freedom of expression.

Staffan Sonning from Swedish Radio was the next to speak. “I do not publish pictures that can be insulting or offending to people or groups unless it is necessary to the story.”

Some argued that he should have published in solidarity with others in a statement over freedom of expression. But Mr Sonning said: The freedom of expression can be defended without repeating the insult itself.

The cartoons had enormous impact in Sweden, and the issue was very much the freedom of the press. We did not publish the cartoons.

Interestingly enough, the Dean of the Church of Stockholm resigned over a controversial art exhibition last week. One pictured Jesus Christ with a Mickey Mouse mask.

As a radio journalist, he said it was an easy decision, but he said, if he were a TV journalist, he was not sure that he would have made the same decision.

Tim Bailey of the BBC asked if there was a fundamental misunderstanding between the West and its liberal traditions and Islam.

Hossam Sokari of BBC Arabic said:

Quite a lot is lost in translation. The media for the sake of simplicity makes them shallower than they are. It is not a straight forward the West versus Islam. There a lot of different flavours of Islam, a lot of threads of discussion in the Middle East.

It is much better to understand the intricacies of the problems. The anger in the streets wasn’t just about the cartoons but a deep sense of anger and frustration about the political processes in their own countries, Mr Sokari said.

Quite a lot of the coverage went for the easy option. We went for reaction to the cleric, to the fundamentalist, whatever face was the angriest.

He pointed to the pressures of the 24/7 news cycle and the pressure in TV (this is a radio conference) to have exciting pictures. The media must take some responsibility for not representing a broader range of Muslim opinion.

The question was whether we in the media have the right to offend, but do we also have a responsibility to show the world in greater complexity?