March 15, 2010 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Are media, arts and culture really starting to censor themselves? (3)

Reporters Without Borders continues its weekly look at the state of free expression and self-censorship in Denmark by publishing an interview with a leading figure from the world of the Danish media and arts.

Following Flemming Rose and Carsten Jensen, this week’s interview is with Lotte Garbers, president of the Danish Writers Association (Dansk Forfatterforening).


Is freedom of expression in danger in Denmark?

It is a very sensitive question, because we do not have any open debate in Denmark about integration and immigration. As a result, it came as a great shock that the publication of the cartoons could produce such a reaction internationally. We found ourselves at the front of the international stage for the first time and we had to deal with terrorist threats. It is the reason why this question continues to be politically very sensitive.

Is there a tendency for people to censor themselves?

An investigation recently established that Danish artists and writers practice self-censorship. But it had barely been published before all the politicians including the culture minister had commented on it. We could understand their vehemence if they were defending the living conditions and working conditions of artists and writers, their pay... But that was not the case.

You yourself criticised the findings of their poll.

Two thirds of the people contacted did not want to take part in the poll because it was clear that it was a political poll, that the intention was to make a link with the crisis over the cartoons. It was very manipulative from the outset. Of the 16 organisations contacted, none made any mention of members who had received overt threats. But we have not heard any talk of that. We are used to freedom of expression, used to using it without restraining ourselves. Of course, all artists censor themselves. But there is voluntary and involuntary self-censorship. And we have had no case of involuntary self-censorship.

But some artists and writers said they took care with the content of their work for fear of reprisals.

Five per cent of those who replied said they were afraid. But that does not allow you to talk of general self-censorship. Kåre Bluitgren, who was behind the publication of the cartoons, recently wrote a book for children that explains the Koran in a critical way. He has not received a single threat because his book is complex and intelligent. There is also the case of that well known writer in Denmark who refused to do a cartoon of Mohammed. Not because he was afraid. But because he thought it would be too easy to make himself famous in Denmark that way. And finally because that would just harm his art.

Why in your view is the debate about threats to free expression linked to the issue of Islam in Denmark?

The reason is simple. We have a party in parliament that likes to target Islam. We have a lot of difficulty in Denmark in absorbing the concept of the global village. That manifests itself in a lot of arrogance. We use free speech in a very arrogant way. A member of the (far-right) Danish People’s Party recently said that all Muslim fathers allowed their daughters to be raped. Freedom of expression is in the process of become the freedom to say anything about anyone at any time. This parliamentarian’s comment was based on the work of a Danish writer that tells the story of six young girls of Muslim origin who were mistreated by their fathers. The author reacted by saying she refused to be manipulated and that she preferred to censor herself in future. Otherwise it is too dangerous.

But can one criticise Islam in Denmark today in the same way that one can criticise other religions?

There is so much interest in criticising Islam that it becomes totally uninteresting from the artistic point of view. It does not touch the heart because it is purely political. A Danish artist recently made a model of Auschwitz in gold, using the teeth of people who died in this concentration camp. It was very provocative. And therefore very interesting. But criticising a religion for the pleasure of criticising has no interesting artistic dimension. That is why we do not do it. Not because we fear reprisals.

You recently said that the army’s attempt to ban a book written by a member of an elite military unit represented a bigger threat to freedom of expression.

It is always a problem in a democracy when state institutions want to control art. Our country has not been at war for 150 years. One can understand why the army wants to keep things secret. But that is also why we reacted so strongly. Imposing silence is a sure-fire way to dismantle democracy. We cannot accept censorship, which is different from self-censorship, by the way. When the author of the book submits to the army the notes he intends to use to write a second book, in the form of a personal diary, that is self-censorship. It is also a serious problem. There is always a risk that censorship will result in self-censorship.

But, in your view, does Denmark deserve to be at the top of the ranking of countries that best protect freedom of expression?

Of course. It would be ridiculous to say that we deserve to be demoted. But I think our interest in freedom of expression is a bit exaggerated. It prevents us from building a multicultural society in which different points of view are accepted. We have difficulty in accepting a nation that cannot be built around a religion or a society.