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Media moves to frontline in blasphemy battle

printing pressThe slaughter of 12 staff at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, following other Islamist atrocities against cartoonists, filmmakers, and publishers, has presented Western journalists with a professional dilemma. They operate under laws which in most cases do not prevent them from publishing material which Muslims consider blasphemous but they now face a serious threat of violence should they choose to do so. Editors must decide whether they should publish according to their own secular laws which protect free speech or Muslim Sharia law. The answer is not simple. Despite the solidarity expressed in the popular Je Suis Charlie campaign, the Western media is divided over whether it should emulate the iconoclastic magazine. Many publications have made a statement for Freedom of Speech by publishing a photo of the latest Charlie Hebdo edition whose front cover depicts the prophet Mohammed, even though this is banned in Islam. In doing so, they have also provided a more informative story to their readers by giving them the material needed to judge the cover for themselves. The major Australian media organisations that have published the cover include the Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the ABC. However, some major international publications – such as the New York Times and the world’s leading online news site, the Daily Mail, have refused to publish the cover. The New York Daily News and the United Kingdom’s Telegraph ran pixelated images, while all of the United States’ major news networks — CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, and Fox — said they wouldn’t air images. This prompted Gerard Biard, editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, to denounce the Western publications that have declined to publish. “This cartoon is not just a little figure. It’s a symbol. It’s the symbol of freedom of speech, of freedom of religion, of democracy and secularism,” Biard said. “When they refuse to publish this cartoon, when they blur it out, when they decline to publish it, they blur out democracy.” Of course, if you are already are under permanent armed guard, as his staff are, it may not such a big jump to once again depict Mohammed. For other journalists leading normal lives, and the editors who employ them, it is a huge step to take. How do you ethically decide to expose your staff to that risk? To defend against an attack by AK-47 wielding terrorists, nothing less than a SWAT team in the foyer will do. But that is an expense that our newspapers, which are barely profitable, cannot afford. Even if they could, journalists would be vulnerable when they leave work. This was shown when the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gough was murdered in the street in 2004 by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim for producing the short film Submission, which criticized the treatment of women in Islam in part by projecting text from the Koran onto women’s bodies. The Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Versus, Associate Professor Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered, while the Italian translator was stabbed in his apartment. A number of cartoonists who drew cartoons of Mohammed for the Danish newspaper the Jyllands-Posten were also subject of assassination attempts at home. And what is the benefit of depicting Mohammed or criticising the Koran? Do Australians really need to critically examine Islam? Up until a few years ago, you could have answered “no” to this question with few qualms. Islam was a religion with negligible influence in Australia and the West. However, the answer may be different today. Ironically, with the rise of the very Islamists who seek to punish blasphemy against Islam, the price of failing to conduct a critical examination of the holy texts and supernatural claims of the religion seems higher than before. If an adherent of any religion claims divine authority for their actions, then the truth of those claims must be examined and that may involve debunking and rejecting their most cherished beliefs, which is blasphemy. The implications of restricting free inquiry are not limited to Islam. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Associated Press news service announced that it would remove all images of the magazine’s edition depicting Mohammad from its commercial photo system because it had a policy of not distributing photos that were “deliberately provocative”. Within several hours, the AP was forced to also eliminate a picture of the artist Andres Serrano’s controversial artwork Piss Christ after the conservative Washington Examiner pointed out that the piece was also deliberately provocative. Pope Francis was quoted appearing to condone violence saying he would punch someone who insulted his mother and that: “You cannot insult other people’s faith”. He later clarified his comments, claiming he meant that violence was wrong but that prudent people would still avoid insulting others because they may react improperly with violence. Unfortunately, the line between legitimate criticism and insult is in the eye of the beholder. These developments were a timely reminder that blasphemy, which is still a crime in many Muslim countries, was a crime in most Western nations for much of our history. Some people argue that Hate Speech laws, where they cover religion, can still amount to blasphemy laws. The last person hanged for blasphemy in Great Britain was 20-year-old Thomas Aikenhead in Scotland in 1697. He was prosecuted for denying the veracity of the Old Testament and the legitimacy of Christ’s miracles. This execution is regarded as a symbol of the backwardness of Scotland in that era compared to its neighbours. The following era, where the Church of Scotland become more moderate and such executions no longer took place, marked the start of the “Scottish Renaissance” where rationalist Scottish thinkers gave the modern world many of its most important ideas. If media organisations decide that blasphemy against Muslim theology is against their policy, there will be a long line of religions demanding the same treatment. Who wouldn’t want their beliefs to be immune from criticism and ridicule? However, the price for granting that protection is extremely high. It is no coincidence that countries with blasphemy laws today are notable for their lack of economic and social development.