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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired February 4, 2006 - 21:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big stories of the moment.
And we begin this week with a series of cartoons that we won't be showing you. That, of course, goes against the very essence of television news, which relies on pictures to tell a story. It's not a decision this network has taken lightly.

Several European newspapers have published the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, including one with a bomb fizzling from his turban. In another he's depicted saying paradise is running short of virgins for suicide bombers.

Islamic tradition bans portrayal of the prophet or Allah, making this a controversy that pits Western free speech against Muslim taboos.

The cartoons have, perhaps unsurprisingly, sparked outrage and protest across the Middle East.

ITN's Jonathan Miller reports on the fallout.


JONATHAN MILLER, ITV CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Insults now added to the injury of losing an election, Palestinian gunmen, an offshoot of the Fatah faction, redirecting their fire and wrath at the European Union today. Calls for restraint from Brussels unheeded, they warned that the E.U. offices were closed. Retaliation, they said, for publication of the offending pictures in a growing number of European papers.

"We give the Danish, French and Spanish governments 48 hours to apologize, or else," they said.

They went on to threaten to bomb European offices and churches in Gaza. On the West Bank, Norway was forced to close its representative office today. In the last few minutes, news from the city of Nabalus that a German citizen has been kidnapped. Earlier gunmen reportedly searching hotels and apartments for foreigners.

Outrage has spread like a virus. Tunisia and Morocco have confiscated copies of the newspaper "France Soir". The cartoons have now been published in seven European countries, but not so far in Britain.

Presidents, governments and religious leaders the length and breadth of the Muslim world have joined the chorus of criticism, even as far as Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.

Muslim leaders from Denmark, where a newspaper first carried the 12 cartoons in question, have shown them to leaders of the Arab League in Cairo.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is one of the pictures. They imagined that this is our Prophet Muhammad (UNINTELLIGIBLE), a blind man.

MILLER: Depicting the image of the prophet is prohibited in Sharia law to prevent idolatry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They imagine that our Prophet Muhammad (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- they are imagining his head as a bomb. Means that this is the source of terrorism. Not anywhere else, but he is the main source for terrorism. That's what they want to say in this picture.

MILLER: And this is where the trouble started. A well-intentioned Danish children's book on the life story of Muhammad, but when its illustrator demanded he remain anonymous because on the cover he had drawn the prophet's face, the newspaper "Jyllands-Posten" went out of its way to prove it wasn't scared to do so, turning the Danish prime minister into another Western hate figure.

Now other European newspapers have followed suit, escalating this supposed clash of civilizations, citing what they say are legitimate European cultural traditions, like freedom of expression, although many broadcasters still fearful of depicting the images in detail.

MILLER: The Danish Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen, contrite on Al Arabiya satellite TV. He condemned the cartoons, but said he had no control over the press.

On the rival Al Jazeera, lengthy reports, the cartoons not shown though, predicting anger across the Muslim world at Friday prayers tomorrow. At the French newspaper, whose Egyptian-Christian owner sacked the managing editor last night, the editor-in-chief now denouncing censorship. Nothing to say sorry for, he said.

SERGE FAUBERT, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, "FRANCE SOIR" (through translator): It's out of order that we present our apologies for anything. We fully assume responsibility for what we did. This paper is proud to have done so. I'm proud of the journalists of "France Soir."

MILLER: And as the E.U. vexes now over threats of consumer boycotts in the Arab world, tonight a weekly newspaper in Jordan, a Muslim country, boldly, provocatively, reprinting the cartoons, explaining context.

"Muslims of the world, be reasonable," the editorial urged, the Jordanian government branding this move a big mistake and threatening legal action.


SWEENEY: Ahead on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, more on the Muhammad images that have angered Muslims. We'll debate this clash of civilizations after this short break.

Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

Every day news editors make controversial decisions. One thing is for sure: you can't keep everybody happy.

But what happens when a picture you choose to print prompts fervent protests across the Middle East? We're talking about the caricature outing of the Prophet Muhammad in several European newspapers. Some broadcasters have also shown the images citing the right to freedom of expression.

To discuss this further I'm joined from Copenhagen by the editor who commissioned the cartoons, Flemming Rose of Denmark's "Jyllands-Posten" newspaper. And here in the studio by Ahmed Versi, editor of the "Muslim News" and Tim Benson, founder of the Political Cartoon Society.

Flemming Rose, in Copenhagen, let me turn to you first. You say that you wanted to provoke debate. Do you believe that you've more than provoked debate here? Have you stirred up a storm that not even you could have foreseen?

FLEMMING ROSE, "JYLLANDS-POSTEN": I mean, I think you have to split this story in two. There is the story that is going on inside Denmark and we have a good and constructive discussion over the last four months about freedom of speech, what kind of limits could you impose on your freedom of speech on the one hand, and on the other hand, what does freedom of religion and respect for other people's religion imply.

I think that the international aspect that has been developing over the last week has not much to do with the publication of these cartoons, because the people who are reacting in the Middle East, who are boycotting Danish goods and so on and so forth, I don't think they have seen these cartoons and they have not read the arguing for printing these cartoons.

They have been misinformed by radical imams from Denmark who have been traveling to the Middle East, showing for instance a cartoon of the prophet having sex with an animal, the prophet being a pedophile and the prophet being depicted as a pig. And we have not printed any of these cartoons. Neither has any other Danish newspaper.

SWEENEY: Let's turn now immediately to Ahmed Versi. There are a number of issues raised here.

Let me first of all ask you about Flemming Rose's assertion that some of the protestors in the Middle East have been misinformed, and particularly misinformed by radical imams traveling from Denmark.

AHMED VERSI, "THE MUSLIM NEWS": I think that is not true. I mean, I don't think just because it is the relationship between the pig and the prophet that created this issue.

The problem was that they depicted the prophet with the bomb on his turban. That is the issue. You have to understand that what this conveys -- and I was at a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) this morning, and this is what the reaction has been by people who do not understand.

People believe that this depiction, which showed that the prophet, who embodies the religion of Islam itself, is terrorist, and that means the religion itself teaches terrorism, suicide bombing and so on. So it sends the wrong image to the rest of the community, and this helps to incide against the Muslim community, because whenever somebody sees a Muslim, who someone possibly looks like a Muslim or an institution that looks like it is for Islam, will believe that these are potential terrorists, because it reflects -- the cartoon itself, but nothing to do with the pigs and -- that is secondary question.

SWEENEY: The Koran teaches that there should not be physical depictions of Muhammad the prophet, but you're saying it's not so much the fact he was depicted. It was how he was portrayed.

VERSI: Exactly. For example, last year in one of the national newspapers, there was a picture of the prophet. Of course, there was a reaction from the Muslim community, but within 24 hours they did apologize and we found out it was a mistake. You know, they did not know that this was sensitive to the Muslim community. And so there was no, like, international outcry because of that.

SWEENEY: Tim Benson, of the Political Cartoon Society, perhaps you can actually bring us right back to basics. What here is the essence of the political cartoon as we know it in the West?

TIM BENSON, POLITICAL CARTOON SOCIETY: Well, the essence is, I mean, it's there to make a comment, whether it be political, economic or social. I mean, I think the cartoon in question is in very poor taste, but we have double standards here.

There is a lot of anti-Semitic cartoon material in the Middle East, Far East press.

SWEENEY: And it could be argued as well that in many of these countries in the Middle East, there isn't democracy and freedom of the press as we might know it here.

BENSON: Absolutely. Something like this is often media driven, I strongly believe. And very often these cartoons can be taken out of context, as this gentleman previously said. But dealing with religion in caricature is very much an emotional minefield.

SWEENEY: Do you think this has become more about a clash of civilizations rather than freedom of expression itself?

BENSON: Yes, I think certain. I think in this country, if there was a depiction of God or any other religious figure, there is more understanding of it. We've sort of developed a thicker skin.

VERSI: I think there are two points of here. First of all, just a couple of years ago we had the Virgin Mary statute with the condom over here. It was withdrawn by the Art Council because it offended the Catholics because it was in the House of Lords that it was brought up by the Catholic members of parliament. So you could see that there was a withdrawal of sensitivities.

And when he talks about -- there are two issues here. I would, of course, not allow any anti-Semitic cartoon to be published in my newspaper. But, secondly, this is the issue about the kind of person who embodies the religion. You will never find, and I challenge you, you will never, ever find any Muslim country or any Muslim newspaper in any part of the Muslim world to vilify any prophet of any religion.

SWEENEY: Flemming Rose.

ROSE: That is just not true. That is just not true.

VERSI: Give me one example.

ROSE: I have a cartoon of a Turkish cartoonist who has been depicting Jesus Christ in a very improper manner according to your values.

But I just want to make a point about.

VERSI: I don't believe.

ROSE: I just want to make a point about the cartoon you mentioned, with the prophet with a bomb in his turban. I read that cartoon in a very different way.

That cartoon is saying to me that some single individuals are abusing, hijacking, the peaceful religion of Islam, in order to commit terrorist and extremist acts.

VERSI: How can you say.


ROSE: I cannot depict 1.3 billion Muslims in a newspaper page and say they are all not terrorists.

SWEENEY: But Versi, let me ask you this, taking up on this point please, just for a second. Just for a second.

Which defiles Islam more? Cartoons such as we've seen in the newspapers printed in Europe in recent days or perhaps somebody holding a hostage with a knife to their throat in Iraq?

VERSI: I think the cartoon of the prophet would.

SWEENEY: We're talking about image here and perceptions and understanding.


VERSI: If he says it is only portraying a few people, then you don't use the person who embodies the religion. You could use any other person looking like a Muslim with a bomb on his head. That's fine. But you are using an image of a person who embodies, who actually is the founder of a religion. You are actually saying it is the religion as such, the person who founded the religion.

BENSON: It is an offensive cartoon. There is no doubt about that. And that think you mentioned about Mary with the condom, that is also offensive. But I think we need to get things into proportion. Whether you agree or disagree, if it's offensive then of course we have the right of protest and criticism. But at the end of the day, one has to get these things into proportion, and you have to deal with it in proportion.

SWEENEY: Flemming Rose, you wanted to provoke debate within Denmark and you say there are two issues, the international protest and the debate within Denmark, but isn't the problem really for you here being exemplified by the fact that religion doesn't recognize borders and countries, and that this -- give particularly the modern media age -- was bound to go beyond the borders of Denmark?

ROSE: I will say once again that the cartoon with the prophet with a bomb in his turban is taken out of context. There are 12 cartoons in that page and they are very different both in the way they are portraying the prophet and in the people they are targeting.

There is a cartoon on that page making fun of me and insulting me as the cultural editor of the newspaper, saying I am a reactionary provocateur. There is a very famous Danish politician who is critical towards Muslim immigration who is being portrayed in a crime gallery. There are cartoons of the children's writer who couldn't find an illustrator, and I think it's.

SWEENEY: With all due respect, Muslims are going to find a cartoon depicted of the Prophet Muhammad far more significant, with all due respect, than a cartoon of yourself.

ROSE: Exactly, and that's what this is about. That in the Western tradition, it is a far graver sin to insult and offend concrete living individuals than to offend religious symbols and to criticize religion. This is a tradition that goes all the way back to Voltaire (ph) and has been a driving force of Western civilization.

SWEENEY: Indeed, but given these sensitive times at the moment, how do you -- or what lessons have you learned about freedom of expression but balancing the need also for respect of religions against the backdrop of very sensitive times after 9/11?

ROSE: Well, I think we do live in a globalized world and even though people in the Middle East don't read a small Danish newspaper in a small country where only 5 million people live, that could still have repercussions around the world. And we have to consider how -- what you can print in a local newspaper in a democracy in Western Europe and what kind of implication that might have in tyrannies in Saudi Arabia and authoritarian regimes, other authoritarian regimes, in the Middle East.


SWEENEY: Will you be revisiting this topic again in your newspapers?

ROSE: You know, this grew out of a conflict situation where we had some.

SWEENEY: But you've got a lot more material now.

ROSE: For what?

SWEENEY: You've got a lot more material as a result of the controversy that has arisen as a result of it.

Will you be revisiting this topic again any time soon, do you think?

ROSE: We are covering this story every day but the idea.

SWEENEY: In the manner of cartoons.

ROSE: The idea of going against a tendency toward self-censorship by asking cartoonists to draw make cartoons of the prophet as they see him, that is already an old idea. I mean, you would have to.


SWEENEY: I think the point I'm trying to get at here, what I'm trying to ask you, and I'll let you both in in just a moment here, but will you be reprinting those cartoons again? Will you be revisiting this topic in a similar fashion by printing cartoons like that, similar to that, or commissioning similar cartoons in the future?

ROSE: OK. Let me be clear. That is a hypothetical question and it depends on the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) situation. I cannot give a specific answer to what will answer in the future.

SWEENEY: Well, are you likely to want to go down that road again, given the controversy that has arisen?

ROSE: I mean, that is a hypothetical question and I am not able to give an answer about what will happen in the future.

BENSON: Religion will always be a contentious subject for caricature. It's always been a taboo and anyone who has deal with it has known that. I mean, for instance, as far back as 1925, Sir David Lowe (ph) drew a cartoon which depicted Muhammad in a fairly benign way, but because the "Evening Standard," as a cartoonist, his cartoons were syndicated around the world, there were huge protests in India because of his depiction. However benign it was.

SWEENEY: Ahmed Versi, does this mean.

VERSI: Sorry. Would you also caricature anti-Semitic images in your publication? You know, Jews.

ROSE: We have printed caricature of Ariel Sharon.

VERSI: No, not Ariel Sharon. I said anti-Semitic (UNINTELLIGIBLE).


ROSE: OK. But let me tell you that in Denmark we do have a Nazi Party, a group of Nazis that are officially registered, and they had a radio station that was supported by the Danish government.

VERSI: I'm asking you, would you have anti-Semitic cartoons in your newspaper. I'm asking you. Not them, you.

ROSE: But that is not the point. The point is.

VERSI: That is the point. That's the whole point.


ROSE: Can I answer your question or not?

VERSI: Yes, please.

ROSE: OK. The point is not what I would run in my newspaper. The point is that I think that everybody should have the right to print what they want to as long as they offer it within the limits of the law.

SWEENEY: And that includes the other newspapers in Europe who have reprinted those cartoons?

ROSE: Sure.

VERSI: I think he made a point as according to the law, because like maybe in Denmark the law says you cannot have anti-Semitic images, the same way as here, so therefore there is already a law to prevent them, so therefore it's self-censorship.

ROSE: That's not true. That's not true. That's not true. We do have a law against racism in Denmark. We do have a law against blasphemy. And some Muslim groups have tried to indict us in accordance with these laws. But the Danish authorities have said there is no basis for indicting the newspaper either for blasphemy or for racism.


VERSI: Why are people so upset if Muslims are reacting by demonstrating, by boycotting your products because you have inflamed the situation, you have provoked them. So they have a right, Muslims have a right, to demonstrate, to boycott your products.

ROSE: Sure.

VERSI: So, I mean, what is the problem with you guys? Why are you so upset with the reaction of the Muslims? They have a right to do what you are doing.

BENSON: I don't think the Muslims have reacted any differently to any other religious (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

SWEENEY: Let me ask you, Ahmed Versi -- Ahmed Versi -- should religion -- should the symbolism of religion really only be within the remit of those who profess that religion?

VERSI: No. I think we have to respect everybody else's religions the same way as I would never publish, and any Muslim, I don't believe any Muslim would publish a vilification or cartoon of any other faith founder, like Moses, Jesus, Abraham, or a Hindu, like Ram, and so on, the same way we expect the others to respect our founders of our religion as well.

SWEENEY: Flemming Rose, you're the subject and object of many interviews and accusations. A final word from you, please. What has this whole experience taught you?

ROSE: Well, it has taught me that some people are very serious about their religious feelings, but it also has taught me that not everybody in Western Europe accepts the fact that it is very problematic to try to impose your religious taboos on the public domain.

SWEENEY: There we must leave it.

Flemming Rose, in Copenhagen, Ahmed Versi and Tim Benson, here in London, thank you all very much.

And that is all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look at how the media are handling the big issues. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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