Free Speech Goes to Hell


Danish publishers of the Mohammed cartoons, as well as those purportedly acting in solidarity ‘to defend free speech,’ were engaged in a stunt, not serious journalism. Testing attitudes to censorship in matters of religious sensitivity was one of the newspapers’ stated purposes in publishing the drawings. Although there was much orchestration in the outrage that followed, it is little wonder that the unwitting subjects of the experiment burned with rage when they discovered the joke was on them.

Stunts have a habit of backfiring.

The cartoons were called into being by the Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten in September last year   and had virtually zero news value. The real news was in the reaction to the contrivance. For those wondering why the cartoons and the manner of their dissemination didn’t get many Muslim laughs, it helps to know that the globalisation of these images clearly positioned them at the centre of a propaganda war. Ripples of distrust and enmity radiate from a centre of European fear about its own cultural erosion combined with Islam’s demographic assertiveness, and the association of Islam with faith-based violence.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

The chain reaction that spread the coded messages through transnational media tapped deep into the well of anti-Islam and were a gratuitous attack on all members of the religion, not just fanatics.

The cartoons were also a call to political opportunists to come out to play. They dutifully did, receiving the controversy like a gift from God. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the already belligerent Iranian President, ramped up the rhetoric at a most dangerous time in Middle Eastern brinkmanship, while provocateurs in Syria and Lebanon were no doubt   doing double shifts to milk public anger for all it was worth.

These cynical manoeuvres were then cited as justification for the publishing slurs which   makes no sense in terms of cause and effect . And once the all-too-familiar images of Muslims rioting and destroying property was firmly encoded in the public mind, the debate demanded participants take sides between ‘free speech’ and ‘intolerance.’

Armchair warriors of civilisational conflict like Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian and libertarian-at-large, Richard Neville writing in the Sydney Morning Herald  soon reported for duty.

Albrechtsen berated ‘Europeans’ for daring to express anything but unqualified allegiance to ‘defending democracy’ and ‘freedom of expression.’ Circumspection equaled appeasement. She blamed ‘the West’s recreational appeasement of cultures diametrically opposed to Western values’ for ‘the slow surrender of Western values.’ The slippery slide starts with a failure to embrace free speech, a trend she identified in the weak-kneed response of   ‘sissy’ Europeans. The primary act of offence (to Muslims) seems incidental to Albrechtsen, subordinate to winning a values contest over free speech.

She misconstrues Arab and Muslim protests as a sure sign that they are opposed to ‘the very idea of free speech and an independent press’ and not the particular manner in which these ‘values’ had been flaunted in this case. As if free speech was defined by gratuitous insults of the sacred.Similarly, ‘the hysterical over-reaction by Muslims’ is proof to Albrechtsen that ‘this is a confrontation we need to have.’ So it is a battle that must be consummated, presumably to cure the poor Muslim of his mental deficiencies in the face of a superior set of values.

Albrechtsen’s selective embrace of rights-based agendas contrasts with Richard Neville’s one-size-fits-all libertarianism although his ‘right-to-offend’ argument is, at least, consistent and dates back 40 years to his Oz magazine days.

Neville’s premise seems to be that unless we continue to assert our free speech no matter how much this speech is designed to injure and undermine the core identities of large swathes of humanity the tide of intolerance will overwhelm us. Pity that history and evidence are against him.

He cites several examples of egregious attempts to quash free speech and free media in both violent and more subtle ways. He implies such censorious behaviour is wicked and generally an open information culture is preferable to a closed one. No problem. But this does not touch on the obligation of publishers/journalists to claim ethical ownership of decisions and their downstream effects.

Riots against minority Muslims in India and the way they are reported will have an impact in Muslim-majority Bangladesh and can endanger Hindu minorities there. Last year, Newsweek magazine found out the hard way the consequences of its report on alleged Qur’an desecration at Guantánamo Bay. Humiliated and vulnerable populations could become more so as a result of factual but ill-timed reports.

The institutional right to publish needs to be balanced with the right of media subjects to be free of violence and intimidation. To use ‘free speech’ as a catch-all shield for individual decisions where consequences could be fairly easily predicted is to renounce a duty of care for anything that occurs after publication. The fact Richard Neville and possibly the Danish editors do not find the cartoons offensive is hardly the point.

The use of professional values like ‘free speech’ to shore up a controversial publication often masks self-interested motives tied to organisational and commercial needs. Every two-bit publication or website which saw having a stab at Islam as a safe, cost-neutral route to notoriety or audience titillation, fired up their scanners for a gratuitous giggle at a religion they know little about and   care about even less. Sure beats real journalism.

The consequences of such editorial indulgences are far more rudely felt by reporters filing from conflict zones which is why field correspondents are usually more considered. Not so the internet columnists firing off facile fatwas from their desktops at a safe distance.

Both Albrechtsen and Neville show a distaste for using media power as a vehicle for harmonising religious conflict. In place of genuine cross-cultural dialogue, they prefer ideological insurgency. To the idea of endless virtual war on the civilisational enemy, their catchcry is ‘bring it on!’

The media is an institutional method of getting information to the public. The privilege carries rights and obligations. ‘Editorial freedom’ is only as good as the decisions that come out of it. If a decision not to publish can demonstrate sound editorial reasons, this is neither self-censorship nor appeasement.

Of course, media operations globally are highly selective about what they label ‘free’ speech and therefore deserving of the privilege of publicity. And so they should be. To think that all opinions, views, exhortations subject to tests of importance and interest have an equal right to public dissemination is as absurd as it is dangerous. In the case of the Mohammed drawings, the British press were correct in their restraint. The Australian was right not to publish, the Courier-Mail got it wrong.

The weakness of the pro-publication, anti-censorship argument is more obvious if we consider some examples in recent history of mass violence which was presaged by extended campaigns of media-driven incitement.

In 1993 in the capital of Rwanda, a private radio station known as RTLM was set up which would become instrumental in creating the psychological conditions for the genocide of the following year. According to human rights group Article 19, the station broadcasts attracted young thugs and gang members with ‘Western-style radio talk shows, complete with audience participation, offensive jokes and popular music.’

RTLM’s spe
cialty was virulent ethnic hatred against the Tutsi minority who dominated a rebel movement periodically at war with Rwanda’s Hutu-led Government. Such was the relationship between the broadcasters, the Government, its security forces and loyal militia that the naming of Government opponents on-air led immediately to their arrest and/or killing.

To put the killings into full swing, RTLM broadcast disinformation about rebel attacks and called for the extermination of Tutsi civilians. It identified the location of targets for the security forces. Article 19 put it this way: ‘RTLM did not merely issue stern instructions to kill, it acted as the drumbeat behind the violence, goading and cheering the perpetrators of genocide.’

Once the genocide ended with the fall of the regime, its officials distanced themselves from the ‘private’ station but defended its role on the grounds of its right to freedom of expression.

Religious gatherings are another favourite for disseminating hate speech and can have a poisonous effect way beyond the confines of a prayer hall. So it was ironic that Albrechtsen and Neville’s defence of the publication of the Danish cartoons on the grounds of free speech occurred within a day of Abu Hamza’s conviction in Britain for soliciting to murder and race hate. In transcripts of speeches to his followers recorded in private meetings, Hamza said:

We ask Muslims to do that, to be capable to do that, to be capable to bleed the enemies of Allah anywhere, by any means. You can’t do it by nuclear weapon, you do it by the kitchen knife, no other solution. You cannot do it by chemical weapons, you have to do it by mice poison. Like you imagine you have one small knife and you have a big animal in front of you This is the first stage of Jihad.

Hamza did not succumb to a wave of New Age terror laws; most of his convictions (and the most serious ones) were based on a 1861 law. Like editors, judges are required to draw a line. The sentencing judge remarked: ‘You are entitled to your views and in this country you are entitled to express them up to the point where you incite murder or incite racial hatred.’ Shame that in Hamza’s case, the line was drawn eight years after he began his deeply racist, apocalyptic sermons.

Just as violence begets violence, so too can hatred have a chilling effect when its communication reaches its target in the public domain. Organised violence on the ground is more often than not prosecuted and sustained through control of communication channels. Communicators, including media workers, bear some responsibility.

If editors indulge in generic media wars for their own sake, the backlashes/over-reactions will be as predictable as the rises in readership.

But media editors don’t need to run with the pack. They can choose to resist the (spurious) libertarian myth and its diminishing returns by allowing their knowledge of a conflict and its potential to spiral out of control to guide editorial decisions.

In a globalised world of instantaneous data transmission, the politicisation of culture and smart mobs, they can no longer wash their hands of the problem once the story is filed and expect the mantra of ‘press freedom’ to save them every time.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.