for diverse, democratic and accountable media

The Danish Cartoon Controversy

publications |

Posted by 151/Granville Williams

The furore sparked by the Jyllands-Posten cartoons has abated but debate on the issues is still ablaze and opinions remain strongly divided. Granville Williams defends freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

The intensity of the debate and protests, following the publication of the cartoons published in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten on September 30 2005, has now subsided, but the issues raised remain. Within the CPBF, and beyond, there was criticism of the basic position contained in the statement we issued on February 3, 2006 (you can find it on the CPBF website).

I want to focus specifically on those criticisms by people and organisations on the left who reject arguments, based on key democratic ideas of ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘freedom of the press’, defending the publication of the cartoons. In the UK the Stop The War Coalition said: “We believe the central issue in the present controversy is not press freedom but racism… ‘Press freedom’ is not the question. Those who wish to fight for media freedom should concentrate on the role of the press in retailing the government’s lies in the build-up to the Iraq war, on the government’s legislative plans to restrict free speech under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’ and on the control of most of the mass media by a tiny number of big businesses."

Deepa Kumar on the Monthly Review website MRZine wrote two pieces which represent this position very clearly: ‘Danish Cartoons: Racism Has No Place On The Left’ (21/02/06) and ‘Fighting Islamophopia: A Response to Critics’ (03/04/06).

In her first article she insisted there was only one response: “…there is no neutral point in a world characterised by racism, wars, and imperialism — you are either on the side of the oppressed or oppressor… a ‘free speech’ defence of the racist cartoons, condemning the protests against them, is liberal cover for right-wing arguments". In her second piece, a reply to critics, she argues that “giving even an inch to Islamophobia divides us and weakens our ability to build an effective opposition to the war in Iraq and the potential war on Iran.

I disagree with such responses to the controversy because they downgrade or dismiss important principles which the left (which I count myself as part of) should defend. In my view the defence of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in no way diminishes our ability to challenge racism, speak out strongly against the Blair/Bush war on terror and challenge the demonisation of Arabs and Muslims. It actually strengthens it.

We do ourselves a disservice if our response to controversies, which are a combustible mix of religion, politics and censorship, is to ignore the facts. For example, lumping the 12 cartoons together and making parallels with those of the German Nazi newspaper, Der Sturmer and suggesting the Jyllands-Posten cartoons were in the same style as the Nazi anti-Semitic cartoons and caricatures is simply inaccurate. (Deepa Kumar does not do this, but Lee Sustar does in another US publication, International Socialist Review, March/April 2006). The quality of the cartoons, and the themes they expressed, varied widely. One cartoon, the bomb in the turban, became the particular focus for anger.

Cartoons are often about eliciting strong responses from newspaper readers. The cartoons were published in a conservative newspaper, as part of specific Danish debate concerning self-censorship, following the difficulty Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen claimed to have experienced in finding artists to illustrate a children’s book about Muhammad. Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, contacted 40 cartoonists and asked them to draw the prophet as they saw him. The 12 cartoons he received were published with an article on self-censorship and freedom of expression. The cartoons, through the globalising power of the internet, have become available worldwide, whereas the article, written in a language understood by five million people, has had partial exposure. The controversy has resulted in deaths, violence and the arrest of seven journalists and editors in Jordan, Algeria and Yemen for printing the cartoons.

The CPBF statement said “charges of offence and blasphemy should not be deployed to curtail freedom of expression…restrictions on freedom of expression which privilege certain ideas and beliefs cannot be justified".

The history of the struggle in the UK for the freedom of the press in the 19th century, as Joss Marsh’s 'Word Crimes' demonstrates, was also about the struggle against blasphemy laws. Socialists in the 21st century should be arguing for the abolition of all blasphemy laws and not, as some do, supporting New Labour’s Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred Bill because the UK British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, would be in gaol if the law had been in force at the time of his recent trial.

The controversy has certainly made me more aware that there is not one single global definition of freedom of expression. Different viewpoints and cultures need to be respected, but the basic core issues still remain: freedom of expression, the right to publish and the right to offend have to be defended.

DATELINE: 25 January, 2010