Freedom comes with responsibility

This insightful statement comes to mind when one thinks of the grossly insensitive manner in which one Danish paper ‘ obviously not well acquainted with what constitutes a good sense of humour ‘ published cartoons associating the Prophet Muhammad, whose deity is central to the tenets of Islam, as a terrorist. All bounds of common sense were ignored by the initial and subsequent publication of the cartoons by hundreds of other newspapers across the world. Particularly depressing has been the re-publication of the cartoons by an independent Mozambique weekly ‘Savana’ resulting in some 600 Muslims besieging their offices. The cartoons smack of gross religious intolerance and bigotry, and we find it grossly shameful and repugnant that a country with an enviable history of religious freedom ‘ much like the rest of the Southern African region ‘ such as Mozambique can publish such shameless cartoons. As pointed out by a media analyst there, the re-publication of these cartoons “served no purpose” and only strained relations between religions and cultures. More fundamentally, the question of the freedom of the press within the context of mutual co-existence, globalization and democracy comes to the fore. Why is it that no one has ever dared to publish cartoons of Jesus Christ holding Jews accountable for his crucifixion? The simple reason is that such an image would only serve to ostracize Jews and fan the flames of anti-Semitism. In the same vein, a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb shaped turban tars every Muslim and gives rise to the unfortunate impression that Islam ‘ one of the world’s greatest religions ‘ is all about violence and extremism. It is in this light that cartoonists, and indeed all media practitioners around the world, should consider the wise counsel of Mike Luckovich, an American Pulitzer Prize winning graphical satirist. Luckovich says such images only serve to inflame passions and as a result many people have died in the ensuing protests. “Cartoonists have a lot of latitude but criticizing the basis of someone’s religion ‘ their deity or their prophet ‘ I think you can make a point without doing that. “Editorial cartoons are supposed to be provocative and hard-hitting. But you don’t want to make people angry for the wrong reason.” Virtually every level headed person is in agreement that while the media are free to publish without fear or favour, that freedom comes with responsibilities. Another publisher who has refrained from publishing these cartoons despite pressure from a small section of his readers to do so has said: “The newspaper doesn’t publish sexual images, racial epithets or profanity, so it shouldn’t publish cartoons that defame a person’s religion ‘ even in the name of imparting information. It’s easy to craft an insulting cartoon on any topic; the challenge is to make them insightful.” There is no justification for publishing such images of a figure revered by millions of people around the world and the media have a responsibility inherent in their profession to help build bridges and facilitate constructive engagement between a West that is distrustful of Islam and a Middle East outraged at Western arrogance and ostentatious displays of military and industrial might. The claim that freedom of speech is being undermined by protest against these cartoons is an argument that holds no water at all. In the same way that the media do not circulate child pornography and racist sentiments, the irresponsibility inherent in religious intolerance has no place in serious media houses. Religion is a very sensitive issue and should be treated as such. That is why there was an international outcry when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi compared himself to Jesus Christ. In reaction a senior Catholic Church official said: “I know he will say he was speaking in jest but such things should not be spoken of in jest.” To this another observer added: “The issue here is not one of curtailing freedom of expression but objecting to the ridicule and insult towards the scared elements of an entire civilization.” As Roman Catholic Cardinal Achille Silvestrini said in his condemnation of the cartoons, Western culture has got to know its limits. Everyone respects freedom of the press but at the same time the press must be fully aware of the responsibilities that come with these freedoms and the full import of their work and the consequences it could have. Wars could easily have erupted as a direct consequence of the foolish publication of the equally foolish cartoons!

March 2006
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