Ranked first in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Denmark is known for a deep attachment to free expression and press freedom. This was seen again on 16 September 2009, when the Copenhagen-based daily Politiken published Thomas Rathsack’s entire book Ranger – at War with the Elite as a free insert after the defence ministry tried to get the courts to ban it. The book relates Rathsack’s experiences as a member of a Danish special forces unit carrying our sensitive operations inside Afghanistan.
Last month’s appearance of two opinion polls in quick succession nonetheless suggest that the 2005 storm over the Mohammed cartoons has had a serious impact on freedom of expression and information in Denmark. Published on 30 September 2005 in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, the cartoons set off a storm of outrage among some Muslims. As well as protests and attacks on Danish embassies, calls were made in some Middle Eastern and Asian countries for a commercial boycott of Denmark. There was a renewed outcry whenever a newspaper reprinted the most controversial of the cartoons, showing the Prophet Mohammed with a turban in the form of a bomb. The cartoonist who did this drawing, Kurt Westergaard, has escaped two murder attempts and still has police protection.
In a poll of 1,010 people carried out by Ramboell/Analyse from 11 to 14 January and published in Jyllands-Posten on 19 January, 84.2 per cent said they approved of the national media’s decision not to reprint the cartoons after the latest murder attempt on Westergaard on 1 January. Only 11.7 per cent thought the cartoons should have been reprinted and 4.1 per cent were undecided. Most of those polled (57.3 per cent) nonetheless continued to support Jyllands-Posten’s original decision to publish them in September 2005 on the grounds of the right to free expression, while 32.8 per cent disapproved and 9.9 per cent had no opinion.
The other poll was carried out from 3 to 12 December by Kaas & Mulvad of 654 members of Danish cultural organisations, of whom about half asked not to be identified. Published on 11 January on Ugebrevet A4, the website of the union federation LO, the poll showed that nearly half (47 per cent) of authors, artists and art gallery and museum directors think that freedom of expression is under threat in Denmark, 56 per cent say they fear offending people on the grounds of their ethnic origin and 53 per cent fear offending their religious feelings.
Reporters Without Borders wanted to go beyond the polls and the percentages by interviewing journalists, cartoonists, artists and intellectuals and publishing their comments on its website over the next month.
Flemming Rose, the editor of Jyllands Posten’s arts and culture pages, who has been living under police protection since the end of 2005, is one of those who agreed to answer a few questions. His interview begins this series.
We take this opportunity to thank both him and the following people, who also agreed to be interviewed: Lotte Garbers, the president of the Danish writers’ association Dansk Forfatterforening, Tøger Seidenfaden, the editor of Politiken, and Cartsen Jensen, a writer and journalist who has just been awarded the Olof Palme Prize for his “courageous, committed and determined” defence of human rights. Their comments will be published over the coming weeks.
Jyllands Posten’s arts and culture editor
Is freedom of expression threatened in Denmark?
Everything depends on how you define the problem. Some say there is no threat as such because, according to the law, you can say and write anything you want within the limits set by the European Conventions. So freedom of expression is protected by the law. It is also true that there have been none of the serious attempts to change the law that we have seen elsewhere, in Norway, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. In Denmark, we have the law against blasphemy and the law against racism. You could argue that the first poses a problem because it gives religious groups a special status. But it has not been used since 1938. So in terms of the law, you cannot say there are any threats.
But in practice?
The question is still open. According to the findings of the poll carried out by the union weekly, some artists censor themselves or abandon projects for fear of the consequences. The poll’s methodology can be questioned but we know this phenomenon exists in other countries as well. Examples abound in Europe of museums, theatres, production companies and publishing houses refusing to display works, show them, film them or publish them because they were considered to be too offensive, above all as regards Islam. This is not a phenomenon that is limited to Denmark. The question is how do you find out if this threatens freedom of expression. We know for sure that there is a growing pressure across Europe and that it translates into self censorship.
Why is the debate about free expression in Denmark so often linked to religion, above all Islam?
It isn’t always. There was, for example, the case of the book by a special forces soldier which the defence ministry tried to have banned last autumn. Personally, I never thought it was a free speech issue. But that is how it was treated by some people. I think it is right that the threats that Islam poses to freedom of expression should be high on the agenda in Denmark, after the cartoons crisis. That was a major shock for us. We were in the habit of regarding ourselves as nice people, who contribute generously to international aid, who can be counted on abroad... This image of a tolerant and open people has been challenged by the cartoons crisis. So there is a real interest in understanding where the problem comes from, Denmark or Islam.
But why do some people regard Islam as a threat to free expression?
When the cartoons were published, I wrote that you could see there had been an increase in self-censorship but it was impossible to say whether the fears that motivated it were imaginary or justified. Personally, I don’t think Islam is the only threat. There are others, which come from societies and countries that are trying to protect themselves internally after 9/11 by adopting anti-terrorist legislation that violates freedom of expression.
So this threat is not so important?
I don’t want to play it down. You may have noticed that after the arrests of two individuals in Chicago on suspicion of preparing a terrorist attack against Jyllands Posten and myself, no Danish newspaper printed the cartoons. It was not to be nice to Muslims. It was the result of intimidatory practices. It has become something that is real. We have correspondents abroad. We have to think of them.
You say that self-censorship is being practiced now?
I know people who say they feel intimidated and who admit to censoring themselves. Why don’t they say it out loud? I think that the spokespeople of artists’ and writers’ associations are influenced by the political situation. They have a problem with admitting that self-censorship exists and that Jyllands Posten is right. It would be like associating with the devil! There is a political interest in distancing oneself from the problem. And then, artists who always want to be challenging the authorities, cannot admit to being intimidated by Islam or by anybody outside the traditional perception of political power. It would not be politically correct.
You yourself still live under police protection...
And my situation isn't getting better. Kurt Westergaard made the mistake of showing where he lives on television. Few people know where I live. But such a situation is bearable only if it last for about six months. I am beginning to understand that the threats will not go away. This is disturbing. The people who decided to be offended by the cartoons are not going to forget it. It was a symbolic event around which it is easy to rally others. I have no regrets. I do not look back. If it had not been the cartoons, it would have been something else. But obviously, I could have done without it.