Publish and be damned: the fight for freedom of expression Print E-mail
Tuesday, 07 February 2006


FOR people living in Western liberal societies, free speech underpins the very freedom to think. That's what makes it the mother of all rights.


In fact, free speech is the first right mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And as George Orwell once said: "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

As the Danish cartoon row spreads, it is clear that freedom of expression is not an absolute, especially when it conflicts with religious faith.

The uproar over 12 cartoons, which first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, has swept across the Muslim world. The cartoons have caused offence to millions of Muslims, not only because Islamic tradition forbids any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, but because they link Muhammad with terrorism.


"It's grossly irresponsible of the editors to publish these cartoons," says Dr Shahram Akbarzadeh, senior lecturer in global politics at Monash University. "In a sense they are trying to break a taboo here, but it's not their taboo to break."


"And the response of Muslims to this has made the issue even worse."


Denmark has been the main target of arson and threats. In Syria, protesters torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies. Iran recalled its ambassador to Denmark, following the example of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Libya. Lebanon's Interior Minister resigned after protesters burnt the Danish consulate. Thousands protested in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Indonesia, protesters attacked the building housing the Danish embassy. Threats against Europeans and their diplomats spread around the Muslim world.


One cartoon depicts Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, another shows him holding a sword with two women in Islamic dress. Another has him standing in paradise telling a parade of suicide bombers: "Stop, stop. We have run out of virgins."


"Freedom of speech," says former prime minister Malcolm Fraser "has never meant the right to say anything, no matter how offensive to some other race, group or religion … I believe they (the cartoons) have to be put in the total context of the war on terror. Very few things are absolute and freedom of expression is not absolute."


We should be trying to make it harder for extremists to recruit, but we are making it easier by "doing things that are stupid", he says.


But do the cartoons lampoon the prophet, or terrorists who commit evil in the name of Islam? And are they really offensive to all Muslims?


"I've seen all of the cartoons and not all of them are offensive," says Amir Butler, the co-convenor of the Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network. Some would be offensive to all Muslims and editors should have predicted the ferocious reaction, he says.


But Mr Butler adds another dimension. Governments have inflamed some of the reaction for political reasons.


"Knowing Syria is a police state, I don't think these things would have happened unless the Government was tolerant of it," he says. "I think there was a reaction among the people and the governments of these Arab countries said 'OK, here's an easy way for us to bolster our Islamic credentials amongst our own people'."


Press freedom is an alien concept to some in Muslim countries because of tight government control, he says. "They view the media as an arm of government. So when they hear the media in Denmark, for example, have done this, they immediately assume it's because the Government is supportive."


As was the case with Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, many Muslims may not have seen the cartoons but have still lashed out. "With The Satanic Verses, if people hadn't reacted the way they did, that book wouldn't have got the airing that it did and it might not have done so well," Mr Butler says.


Helen Szoke, the chief executive officer of Equal Opportunity Victoria, says given the intense scrutiny the cartoons have attracted, any attempt to publish them in Victoria might be "cavalier".


The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 provides a means of redress in the case of religious vilification, she says. But given that the law sets a high bar for what constitutes religious vilification, and given that there are exceptions allowed such as publications, works of art and performances done in the public interest, it may well be that the cartoons would come under the exception provisions, she says.


Victoria's Christian and Jewish leaders say they understand the Muslim fury, but defend the importance of free speech.

Dr Paul Gardner, the chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission, a Jewish human rights group, attacks what he calls Muslim hypocrisy in demanding sensitivity for Islam while "despicable anti-Jewish caricatures appear almost daily in government-controlled newspapers across the Arab and Muslim world".


Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen says he sympathises with Muslims, but freedom of speech is important. "Mockery of the church is one of the things we have to put up with. Free speech is only possible in a moral society where people actually care for each other. Freedom of speech will be abused in an immoral society, but even so, it's so important that the people who suffer from it have to put up with it."


Brian Walters, SC, the president of Liberty Victoria and vice-president of Free Speech Victoria, says that while publishing the cartoons is a subjective decision for editors, he would "strongly support" their right to publish. " … If free speech means anything, you've got to be able to say offensive things and it's vital that there be that freedom," he says.


That is Salman Rushdie's message. "What is freedom of expression?" he once asked. "Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."


Sushi Das 

with Barney Zwartz

The Age , 7 February 2006
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