Drawing conclusions

Cartoon scandal Danish editor warns of religious rage taking precedence over freedom of expression.

By RICHARD OESTERMANN
June 15, 2006 09:36
Drawing conclusions

carsten juste 88.298. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Jyllands-Posten Editorin-Chief Carsten Juste says he agrees with the view that Denmark's becoming Europe's standard-setter for freedom of expression - 63 years after being the only European country whose Jews were rescued from the Nazis - was somewhat accidental. In the aftermath of last year's cartoon scandal - sparked by his Danish daily's publication of 12 Danish political cartoonists' pictorial portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed - Juste became a "wanted man," and he continues to receive thousands of requests for interviews the world over. Juste's overnight thrust into the international limelight began on September 30, 2005, with the publication of the cartoons. The events that followed, though by now known to all, are worth reviewing: • On October 9, spokesmen for the local Islamic community demanded an apology from Jyllands-Posten. Ten days later, 11 ambassadors from Muslim countries asked for a meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh-Rasmussen to try and obtain state intervention against the newspaper. Fogh-Rasmussen denied the request, explaining that the Danish government has no legal grounds to curb freedom of the press. • In December, a delegation of Danish Muslims travelled to the Middle East and held meetings with Muslim religious leaders, to whom they presented the cartoons in question, as well as three additional drawings, none of which had been printed in Jyllands-Posten. The event contributed to the growing atmosphere of animosity toward Denmark. • On December 29, Arab League foreign ministers publicly criticized the Danish prime minister for his handling of the case. • In his 2006 New Year's address to the Danish people, Fogh-Rasmussen talked about the importance of freedom of expression, freedom of religion and mutual respect. • On January 10, the Norwegian weekly, Magazinet, published the drawings. This led to death threats on the part of radical Muslims in Norway directed at editor Vebjoern Selbekk. • Several European newspapers then got into the act by publishing the cartoons, to express solidarity with the Danish and Norwegian media, and to wage their own battle on behalf of freedom of speech. An Arab boycott of Danish goods ensued, instigated by Saudi-Arabia. • Libya closed its embassy in Denmark. • Angry Arab mobs torched the Danish Embassy in Damascus and the Danish Consulate in Beirut. • Frenzied crowds burned the Danish flag and effigies of the Danish prime minister in a number of Arab countries and in the Palestinian Authority. • On February 8, in the West Bank city of Hebron, 60 international observers from TIPH (Temporary International Presence in Hebron) - including 20 Danes and Norwegians - were forced to flee their headquarters, after being attacked by a group of Palestinians. Since the PA police were unable to defend them from the demonstrators, the IDF had to be summoned for the job. The irony of the situation lay in the fact that it was the Palestinians who had insisted upon having these international observers - after the 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacre of a group of Muslims praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron - as protection from Israel. Now the TIPH leadership was asking Israeli soldiers for protection from a Palestinian onslaught. • At around this time, Jyllands-Posten cultural editor Flemming Rose gave an interview to Al Jazeera TV, in which he expressed regret over the cartoons, saying his newspaper had not intended to hurt devout Muslims. However, according to Jyllands-Posten, his contrition was not translated into English and widely disseminated. • Juste then issued a statement, addressed to "Honorable fellow citizens in the Arab World," apologizing for the insult the cartoons had inflicted, yet not for their publication, saying this violated neither Danish law nor Danish press ethics. ALL OF this requires some background. Jyllands-Posten is a morning paper, the largest in Denmark, with a circulation of more than 150,000 during the week, and more than 200,000 on the weekend. Founded in 1871 in Aarhus, Jutland, it grew in popularity, beating competitors Berlingske Tidende and Politiken. Today it is owned by the company that also publishes Politiken and its tabloid Ekstrabladet, though the editorial offices of the three are completely independent. The editorial line of Jyllands-Posten is determined solely by its editor-in-chief, who has full responsibility under Danish law for its content. Juste, 59, has held this position since 1994. In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Juste gives an evaluation of the situation for the media in the wake of the cartoon affair. "It is sad that we now have a more conspicuous self-censorship than before," he says. "After having seen the quite outrageous reactions to the cartoons, I believe we are all more reluctant, and ask ourselves whether it was worth the commotion to print something we actually find right to print." How do you view the freedom of expression in Europe after this development? I believe that freedom of expression in Europe is so consolidated that it will survive even this crisis. But it has been incredible to hear high-level politicians argue, more or less indirectly, that consideration of religious rage will carry more weight than consideration of freedom of expression. Do you see this affair as a clash between different cultures? Yes, you have to acknowledge that, to a degree. Should Denmark expel the extremist Muslims who travelled around in the Middle East with three cartoons that were never published in Jyllands-Posten? We have no opinion on this, but it is clear that the authorities must keep an eye on people who engage in activities which are harmful to the country. Is "freedom of expression" an explosive issue? It has been shown to be. [Here Juste points to a March 6 editorial in his paper titled "The Terms of Satire." The editorial says, "If anything is crystal clear after the enormous excitement which the printing of the Muhammed cartoons caused, it is that freedom of expression is explosive. It has several smoking bombs in the turban. We had gotten used to the fact that we could say, draw and write whatever we wanted without anybody taking it so seriously that they reacted violently. This affair has turned it upside down. The freedom of expression stood its test. The air has been cleansed."] Has freedom of expression lost the battle? With regard to the above - no. But self-censorship has been increasingly in evidence. People who shout most loudly and threaten to kill others have succeeded in provoking a reticence which is caused solely by fear of reactions. Which consequences has the affair had for Jyllands-Posten - as far as circulation and threats against its employees are concerned? It has had no influence on our circulation or number of readers. But those who drew the cartoons have been living, and perhaps will continue to live for a long time, under constant police protection. How do you rate the expressions of sympathy from various European newspapers? Positive. Very positive. Do you think your paper has fought for a worthy tradition? Yes. What were your feelings in the face of the burning of Danish flags and embassies in the Middle East? Shock, resentment and anger. In retrospect, would you have done anything differently? Perhaps some small matters, which I will not get into. I have stated - and still believe - that I would not have printed the cartoons if I had known the consequences. The point is, however, that nobody, absolutely nobody, could have anticipated the consequences. I would not have desisted because I found it wrong to print the cartoons, but because hooligans endangered peoples' lives. So, the consideration is whether marking freedom of expression was worth the price. In any case, talking about "what if" is merely hindsight in a situation like this one. We are not responsible for how hooligans and Middle East dictator-states react to some fully legal Danish newspaper cartoons, but I would like to stress that we do not force anybody to read Jyllands-Posten. Doing so is voluntary. Anybody who is not satisfied is welcome to ignore what they do not like. We could not and will not apologize for having printed these cartoons, because doing so would constitute capitulation in the generations-old fight for freedom of expression. Opinion polls show that a vast majority of the Danish public supports us. The writer is a Jerusalem-based Danish correspondent for Scandinavian newspapers.

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