HRS International

Shoulder to shoulder

The newspaper Bergens Tidende (BT) has changed its mind about the Muhammed cartoons. Under its previous editor, BT’s policy was that freedom of expression is not absolute.and that it can be more important to protect religions and cultures. In the wake of the recent revelations about the terrorist plans targeting the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, BT has decided that it is individuals who need protection, not cultures.

Rita Karlsen, HRS

It was in yesterday’s editorial, headed ”A market for offenses,” that Bergens Tidende (BT) announced its change of policy. It cannot be called sensational, given that BT has acquired a new editor-in-chief since it joined pretty much all the other newspapers in Norway in prohibiting the publication of the Muhammed cartoons. That BT’s new editor-in-chief, Trine Eilertsen, disagrees with her predecessor on this issue is natural, but the news is all the more gratifying because other Norwegian editors have preferred not to revisit this matter. They hide their cowardice behind silence.

Eilertsen took the revelation of the terrorist plans against Denmark as an opportunity to announce the newspaper’s new position.

THE REVELATION of the terrorist plans against Jyllands-Posten and the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard returns the Muhammed cartoon controversy to the public agenda. This provides us with an opportunity to clarify Bergens Tidende’s position on the matter.

When the controversy broke out early in 2006, it led to internal discussions at Bergens Tidende. Then editor-in-chief Einar Hålien wrote in a commentary that freedom of expression is not absolute and that it must be justified. He referred to the desire to prevent war, violence, and despotism. He also expressed doubt as to whether all religions should be treated equally. ”If we treat all religions equally where the content and form of statements are concerned, we choose to ignore the cultures within which the religions exist,” he wrote in a commentary in February 2006.

The new editor-in-chief notes that this is no longer BT’s view, and she explains why:

Einar Hålien, and virtually all of the Norwegian newspaper editors, turned the cartoon controversy into a cultural conflict. The argument has its origin in the idea that that a culture should have the right to demand special rights and protections – even when it infringes on individual rights. We think this is a dangerous and unwise attitude. It was this view that also lay behind the measure proposed last spring that would have revived the blasphemy law. The government, with the Center Party in the lead, proposed that ”hateful statements presented in such a way that they represent qualified assaults on a religion or philosophy of life” should be punished.

With such a law in place, one could easily have determined that it was punishable under Norwegian law to publish satirical drawings.

Fortunately the government made an about-face at the last minute. But the fact that it was close to approving such a law in the first place shows how much importance our public officials have come to place on the concept of offensiveness.

It is not only the editor of BT who is glad that the government changed its mind, precisely because someone would have used the culture of offense to subdue freedom of expression. The government deserves praise for having retreated from the law; this is more than can be said about the majority of the nation’s top media.

For there weren’t so many who reacted on Fridag, December 19, 2008, when the government proposed making the criticism of religion punishable. Most people were probably thinking about the Christmas gifts they hadn’t bought, and what it would be like to celebrate Christmas in the middle of a financial crisis. The proposal’s opponents, including this writer, were quick to connect the proposal to the controversy that had surrounded the Muhammed cartoons (and Norway’s pathetic handling thereof) and to the hullabaloo and confusion in the UN Human Rights Council, where the Organization of the Islamic Council, together with a few co-conspirators, tried to compel the council to pass a resolution declaring that the criticism of religion (read Islam) was a violation of human rights. The media did not begin to react until several weeks had gone by, but even then when they looked at the proposed law they weren’t able to see it as anything more than the work of a few members of the red-green coalition government, mainly Center Party representatives. At that time the Labor Party’s sister party in Denmark actually asked if we in Norway were living in a Muslim dictatorship.

What was at issue here, as BT’s editorial also emphasizes, is not the question of whether freedom of expression has its limits. But there is a great difference between that and making threats or playing the offense card as a way of silencing somebody.

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION has its limits. Of course it is not absolute. People have a right to be protected from being badgered. It should be illegal to encourage violence. Individuals have a right to extensive, if not absolute, protection, including protection from speech acts. But there comes a point when it is time to ask whether it is individuals or cultures that should be respected. Both/and is,in the long run, impossible.

AT THE VERY HEART of freedom of expression is the limitation of the power to decide which statements are acceptable and which are not. But freedom of expression does not only eixst for those who speak. Freedom of expression allows those who listen to evaluate what is being said, to test their own arguments, and draw their own conclusions. This right cannot be restricted to the few.

In this case, therefore, we stand shoulder to shoulder with Jyllands-Posten.

It should also be noted that one of the then journalists of BT, Frank Rossavik, who is now the social editor of Morgenbladet, called for BT, at the height of the controversy, to publish the Muhammed cartoons. He was not listened to. Whether he will now manage to get Morgenbladet to stand shoulder to shoulder with JP, rather than with the cowardly Norwegian editorial corps, remains to be seen. To me, it is incredible that Norwegian media refuse to show the pictures that the story is all about. Such a line is not drawn in other cases; take for example the illustration that has accompanied reports about the ”Lommemann” [or ”Pocket Man,” the name given to a perpetrator of a series of acts of sexual abuse of children which were committed between 1976 and 2006], an unclear and grainy picture of a man with his back turned. But it is probably the Lommemann. Why, then, won’t the media publish the Muhammed cartoons, which are actually what the story is about, so we can all look them over and figure out what we think of them? Because we ”have seen them anyway”? This is embarrassing, to say the least, and scarcely passes for an editorial policy.

It needs to be added, in any event, that saying is not doing. The fact remains that BT has still not published the Muhammed cartoons (except for a facsimile of JP’s front page in 2006, if I remember correctly).

Translated from the Norwegian by Bruce Bawer