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Tiptoeing Around Taboos

As a magazine editor in 1993, I made a tough judgement call to spike a Zapiro cartoon portraying Mangosuthu Buthelezi with the mouth of a violent volcano. The reason was that our sellers' lives could have been at risk in KwaZulu-Natal had we carried the cartoon.

That unhappy decision came to mind in the current furore over the Danish cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. An oft-cited argument against publicising these images is the need to avoid adding fuel to existing flames of Islamic anger.

Certainly, no editor should have ignored that many Muslims feel threatened by Western governments, armies and culture -- and that strong reaction to cartoons is inevitable in the current climate.

Yet, there is also a danger in tiptoeing around taboos solely to keep the peace. Indeed, there is a powerful point that withholding content because it might cause outrage in some circles might be understandable -- but it is not, ultimately, a satisfactory reason for self-censorship.

The danger is that giving in to threats of violence can lead to further intimidation -- and to gagging and cover-ups, or even political restrictions on free speech in the name of purported stability or national interest.

In short, it's not wholly persuasive that the need to acknowledge realities of power, and the merits of peace, is why the Danish cartoons ought to have been kept off the pages.

But on the other side, the reasons cited by those in favour of the publishing are much less convincing:

  • There's no "public interest" in alerting audiences that many Muslims see blasphemy in publishing imagery of Muhammad by actually printing such images.


  • There is a newsworthy irony that the stereotypical linking of Muhammad with violence (through picturing a bomb in his turban) is reinforced by the behaviour of some people protesting this very image. But that point can be made in words and does not need the reprinting of the image itself.


  • Equally flimsy is the "solidarity" argument that has been invoked to justify republishing. Why show support for an editor's rights by amplifying the perceived offensiveness? It's gratuitous at best, and provocative at worst.

In other words, reasons for publishing the cartoons are unconvincing. But, besides the problematic "keep the peace" argument, what about the other reasons against publishing?

Here, people have argued that the right to freedom of expression (that is, to publish the cartoons) must be compromised by other rights. Thus:

  • Some people put free speech up against the right to freedom of religion. But this does not wash, because criticising -- or even insulting -- a religion does not remove the freedom to practise the associated belief system.


  • Other writers say the right to dignity rules out the publication of the cartoons. Again, this is an unsuitable argument. Do images of the Prophet (even negative ones) automatically translate into diminishing the dignity of his followers? Don't such depictions merely show disrespect and lack of sensitivity on the part of the artist, not the Muslim?


  • Lastly, "hate speech" has been cited as a justification for curbing the cartoons. For content to count as such in South Africa, however, it has to involve harm (such as incitement to violence). The cartoons in question do not easily fit this bill.

In short, there are no rights issues in South Africa to ban the publication of the cartoons legitimately -- neither the rights to freedom of religion or dignity, nor the ban on hate speech.

So if there is, then, not sufficient recourse either in the discourse of rights or in the fear of inflaming tensions, what reason remains for not publishing the cartoons?

The answer is simple: the media, like any other human agency, should respect diversity.

This is not a call for tolerance of everything. There is no need to respect those who interpret sharia law in ways that transgress human rights and gender equality. These abuses need exposing, no matter if many angry people may believe such behaviour should be protected from critique or satire.

Likewise, journalists should not tolerate, or even tread softly, when reporting cases of religion being used to justify violence, invasions or exploitation.

Most South African journalists, it seems, share this stance of respect within its borders of refusing violations of human rights. And because the Islamic views on imagery of the Prophet transgress no human rights, most editors have shown themselves to be respectful.

However, even in the case of misguided media who decide to carry the cartoons, there is still no place for violence, nor for legal interdicts, to deal with this. It is their right.

It was bad judgement for editors around the world to publish and republish the cartoons. But to build respect and value-based tolerance of diversity, their decisions need to be debated, rather than curbed by courts or cowed by fear.


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