Freedom of the press must never allow itself to erode

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The publication in September 2005 of 12 editorial cartoons depicting Muhammad set off a firestorm of controversy. Thousands of people in the Middle East and the rest of the world protested these cartoons, some of which commented negatively on Islam. Despite this, most of us cannot say that we’ve seen these cartoons. News organizations in the U.S. have, for the most part, chosen not to print or display them.

This decision is entirely within their rights. News organizations choose what is newsworthy and write their stories accordingly. However, that freedom brings with it a great responsibility. A newspaper should never seek to offend, but it should not fear doing so in pursuit of a greater good.

In modern Western society, there is a separation between church and state that is not seen in many Muslim societies. Saudi Arabia, as an example, prohibits public worship of religions other than Islam, and atheism and apostasy (conversion to another religion) are both capital crimes. Depictions of the prophet Muhammad are seen by many modern Muslims as being close to idolatry, something prohibited by Islam (as well as Christianity and Judaism). Even without this, any criticism of Muhammad can be construed as blasphemy, another crime that is punishable by the death penalty. If the offender is “lucky,” he might merely be convicted of insulting Islamic values and serve a five-year sentence.

The cartoons were originally published by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten in Denmark as part of an article discussing the boundaries of free speech and how Islam should not receive special treatment in the media. Forty cartoonists were approached to draw their views on Muhammad, and 12 responded. Six of these cartoons were reprinted during Ramadan in El-Fagr, an Egyptian newspaper that accompanied the cartoons with an article denouncing them. Interestingly, no known protests by the Egyptian government or Egyptian religious authorities resulted from this republication.

Other newspapers, most of them European, have since reprinted the cartoons. Protests against the cartoons and the newspapers who chose to reprint them have followed, along with at least 30 deaths. Newspapers should report on this, and they have. They also have a responsibility to show what has brought about these protests. A newspaper has to decide what topics should be covered in each issue, but it should seek to inform, not indoctrinate. It can say that other people found the cartoons offensive, but by preventing the readers from drawing their own conclusions from the cartoons, it does a disservice to its readers. Though some may be offended, the importance of the news outweighs the offense that it engenders.

One newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, was blunt with its reasons for not reprinting the cartoons. The primary reason that they did so was “[o]ut of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do.” Its honesty is welcome at a time when respected news organizations like CNN claim that they will not reprint the cartoons out of respect for Islam while they do reprint anti-Semitic cartoons that are just as offensive. This double standard is nothing new. Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (1989) and Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996), made with elephant dung as an ingredient, offended Christians across the world, but news organizations saw nothing wrong with republishing them. The largest of the protests had to do with the public funding of such art. Even with these protests, the majority of Christians who were offended by this “art” recognized that their creators had a right to create it, just as they have a right to celebrate their religion.

The refusal of most newspapers to stand in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten is only a single symptom of this moral cowardice. Google’s and Yahoo’s choice to collaborate with the Chinese government in its attempts to censor information, CNN’s censorship of the situation within Iraq as described by Easton Jordan in his New York Times article “The News We Kept to Ourselves” — all these result in the erosion of our freedoms as we choose the path of convenience over the sometimes rocky road of free expression. The greatest risk to free speech comes not from the government, but the voluntary self-censorship of those who profess to believe in free speech.