The Press, Politics and Religion

It is a privilege to be able to host the National Press Club’s discussion on “The Press, Politics and Religion”, here in the Beehive. This discussion has been prompted by the furore around the publication of cartoons of Mohammad in a Danish newspaper, and reprinted in papers around the world including in the Press and Dominion Post here.

To me there are very important issues at stake. On the surface, it can seem that there are conflicting pressures on the media: on the one hand to guarantee freedom of speech, and on the other to avoid excessive or unnecessary harm to people. I think we can at least partly resolve this apparent contradiction if we see the media’s fundamental responsibility as being to increase people’s understanding of issues.

This requires the range of viewpoints on any issue to be aired without censorship — sometimes via cartoons, humour or satire. Cartoonists are on the frontlines of free speech, because their medium requires them to simplify issues and lampoon people and institutions. A cartoonist who does not both delight and upset people is not a good cartoonist.

Cartoonists play an extremely important role in cutting down to size the arrogant, the powerful, and ideologues of all stripes — including religious ideologues. Hard hitting cartoonists match the Kiwi personality. We like to poke the borax at everyone, including ourselves. And that’s a wonderful thing. The last thing I want to see coming out of this controversy is cartoonists, stand-up comics and the like engaging in more self-censorship.

However, every cartoon has a context, and some cartoons can do harm, or rather compound harm, by adding insult to serious injury. For example, anti-Jewish cartoons published in German newspapers during the Holocaust did do harm, making the detention and killing of Jews more socially acceptable.

Recognising the harm cartoons can do, in certain contexts, helps us understand the anger ordinary Muslims felt towards the Mohammad cartoons — and I am talking here about ordinary Muslims, not the extremists.

They were upset because of the particular context. Today Muslims feel they are under siege. Some of their lands, like Iraq and the Palestinian territories, are occupied by foreign forces. Muslims have been gratuitously abused in places like Abu Graib or Guantanamo Bay. They see different standards are applied to Muslim nations. For example today Iran is in the gun — almost literally — for its nuclear programme — but what action is being taken on Israel’s nuclear arms. Throughout the West, Muslims face significant prejudice and discrimination.

It hurts Muslims deeply that Islam is being portrayed as a violent religion. Robert Fisk believes that the cartoon which incited the current protest was the one portraying Mohammad as a bin Laden type bomber.

In surveying media comment on the cartoons I find little recognition of this context — that of Muslims suffering around the world, and feeling their religion is being denigrated. Muslims are no different from any other religious community in that they are more open to criticism when it comes from those sympathetic to the way Islam, like other world religions, contributes positively to community life. Unfortunately, most New Zealanders still treat Islam as a somewhat backward religion, and little appreciate its goodness and diversity.

Debates we have in a Christian context are different. There is currently an argument over whether the C4 Channel should show a bleeding Virgin Mary statue. Although there have been some strident voices on the issue this debate won’t raise the temperature as much as the Mohammad cartoons, being in the framework of fairly universal respect for those adhering to Christianity. We are also aware that there will be a significant number of Christians on either side of the C4 South Park debate.

I have not gone around bashing the editors of the Dominion Post and The Press for printing the cartoons. They were hardly alone in the community in not fully appreciating the international context of the Muslim reaction — of Muslims being put down by the governments, armies and, indeed, people of the West.

And I agree with The Press and Dominion Post editors that it is generally good for readers to be given words and pictures to judge for themselves what all the fuss is about. How, for example, can I pass judgement on the “Bloody Mary” South Park episode when I haven’t seen it and don’t know the full context of it.

We also have to be wary of “national interest” reasons for censorship. I don’t buy the government’s view that the newspaper editors should, when deciding whether to print the cartoons, have taken into account potential trade boycotts. That is not a moral argument — in fact it is amoral because the consequence would be us bowing and scraping to any other big power who made a trade threat. We are already too timid in speaking out about violations of human rights in China, for fear of that government’s reaction.

In conclusion, I agree with the editors and journalists that we must protect free speech, and our right to know, but this is best achieved in a climate of respect and tolerance towards all peoples and religions.


National Press Club, Bellamys, Parliament