The Boundaries of Free Speech

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The Boundaries of Free Speech

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Just as we were all beginning to think that the power of the press had gone to the dogs, a handful of cartoons in European newspapers has stirred up a new holy war against the media.

The cartoons, initially published by a Danish newspaper and reprinted last week in other European media, satirized the Prophet Muhammad, showing him, among other things, as a bomb-carrying terrorist.

In response, violence has erupted across the Middle East and elsewhere. In Afghanistan, at least five protesters died. The Danish consulate in Lebanon and the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were set on fire.

Protesters turned out in India, Thailand, Turkey, Indonesia and New Zealand. A teenager died in Somalia yesterday when the police sparked a stampede by firing into the air.

There have been death threats and economic boycotts. Diplomatic relations have been severed.

The controversy over the caricatures of Muhammad followed another uproar closer to home, after Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles drew an American soldier with no arms or legs, lying in a hospital bed. In the cartoon, his doctor is Donald Rumsfeld, who says, "I'm listing your condition as battle-hardened." The line was inspired by a remark the defense secretary had made in fending off accusations that there are not enough U.S. troops in Iraq.

That cartoon drew the fury of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wrote a letter to The Post calling the cartoon "a callous depiction of those who volunteered to defend this nation."

Toles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, felt no need to apologize: "There was no intention to make light of the situation," he said. "I was trying to point out, and I felt that I did point out, the seriousness of the situation."

That storm died down, while the one overseas only gets more intense every day. It didn't help matters when other newspapers in Europe decided to reprint the offending drawings. The European Union's trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, told The Washington Post that it amounted to "throwing petrol onto the flames."

France Soir, one of several European newspapers that published the cartoons, said, "Imagine a society that added up all the prohibitions of different religions. What would remain of the freedom to think, to speak, even to come and go?"

For many in the West, the dramatic response to publication of the cartoons seems "a staggering overreaction," Lawrence Pintak wrote in Columbia Journalism Review. Pintak, who teaches electronic journalism at the American University in Cairo, said, "Western reporters are already fair game for the most extreme elements, as the kidnapping of reporter Jill Carroll in Iraq demonstrates. The cartoon controversy could make things even worse."

Here in the States, only the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Sun printed the Muhammad cartoons, and TV networks, for the most part, steered well clear.

Amanda Bennett, the Phildelphia Inquirer's editor, told the Associated Press, "This is the kind of work that newspapers are in business to do. We're running this in order to give people a perspective of what the controversy's about, not to titillate."

Overseas, the controversy took a bizarre turn this afternoon, when Reuters reported that Iran's largest newspaper has launched a competition to find the best cartoon about the Holocaust.

The daily paper Hamshahri said the contest was designed to test the boundaries of free speech, the reason given by many European newspapers for publishing the cartoons of the Prophet.

In Jordan, Jihad Momani, the editor of the weekly newspaper Shihan, who was fired and later arrested after he published the caricatures of the Prophet, told Newsweek's Joanna Chen that the cartoons "are not the end of the world."

"Insults have happened before and will happen again," he said. "The cartoons are silly. They don't deserve such an intense reaction."

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan