Newsletter No 31 11 July 2006
Editors Voice:
The Mohamed Cartoons - Not Many Lessons Learned

The hottest debate at this year's World Editor Forum was about the lessons learned from the Danish cartoon crisis. Overall the discussion, and the audience fray afterward, descended into the same kind of cross accusations and pandering to populism that the cartoon incident itself feature.

The participants were from the various focal points of the controversy, including Khaled Al-Balshy, the deputy editor of Egyptian newspaper Al-Dustour, Joern Mikkelsen, the chief editor of the newspaper that started it all, Jyllands-Posten, and the newspaper’s culture editor Fleming Rose (the man who commissioned the cartoons).

The moderator, Abdel-Waheed Khan, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, began the session by emphasizing that both respect for freedom of speech, and respect for religion are key pillars, and shouldn’t be placed against each other.

That attempt to rationalize the issue began to lose focus as each speaker presented his point of view. The most constructive contribution was, according to attendants, that of Khaled Al-Balshy, the deputy editor of Egypt’s Al-Dustour weekly.

He began his speech by asking a key question: “How can we have a broader minded world?” He said the cartoon crisis had highlighted existing threats that could cause another clash.

He also questioned the Egyptian government’s role in the crisis, beginning with its ambassador to Denmark’s insistence on upping the ante at every possible opportunity. Al-Balshy said this and other government efforts to enflame, rather than contain, the crisis, were taken because the government wanted to appear more “Muslim” than its primary opponent – the Muslim brotherhood – in upcoming parliamentary elections at the time. And since the government controls a great deal of Egypt’s media, they managed to do so.

He then broke down the three ways the press dealt with the situation: government affiliated papers poured oil on the blaze, some independent papers that wanted to curry favor with the government did the same while newspapers that wanted to increase their circulation also tried to do so by fanning popular sentiment. He called papers that were neutral “negative” since they didn’t do anything to stop the flame.

The basic problem for Al-Balshy was that people were protesting the cartoons while other important events (a ship sinking killing over a thousand people, activists being beaten up, elections being rigged) were not getting attention – mainly because the government wanted it that way.

Looking at things from a more global perspective, he said the Danish newspaper should have known that the prophet was a sacred figure; that they could criticize Islam, but not in this way. The western media that reprinted the cartoons also acted irresponsibly, he said. He concluded by saying that the cartoon incident showed that the western world looks at the Muslim world as a single entity, and vice versa.

Mikkelsen, the Jyllands-Posten chief editor, began his talk by clarifying that his newspaper is not an ultra right wing newspaper nor the partner of an anti-Muslim worldwide movement and that it was not seeking to trigger a clash of civilizations.

And although Mikkelsen said, “the religious feelings of all people should be respected,” he also insisted that “religions too can be brought up for discussion – it’s the only way that society can move on.”

On whether or not the Jyllands-Posten would do it again, he said, “It’s hard to say.” His main reason for saying that, however, did not seem to be because of the global turmoil that printing the cartoons caused, but mainly because the cartoonists themselves were now at risk.

Also participating were Eric LeBoucher of Le Monde and Imtiaz Alam from the South Asian Free Media Association in Pakistan.

Eric le Boucher defended his paper’s decision to publish their own Mohamed cartoons. The reason why they didn’t reprint the actual Danish cartoons he said, is because the paper was very aware that it was read in the Arab world, and was also not interested in putting its own correspondents in the Arab world in danger…Even though he condemned the Danish cartoonists’ attempts to link the prophet and terrorism, he could not accept the idea that picturing the prophet is blasphemy.

Imtiaz Alam, the general secretary of the South Asian Free Media Association in Pakistan, called the Danish experiment “bad news”… Why should the editors push the limits like this, he asked.

Alam, who is a press freedom advocate, said the issue was not one of free expression, but one of purposefully hurting the feelings of other people. “Just because Muslims don’t like these cartoons doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense of humor,” he concluded.

By Tarek Atia