March 19, 2010 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Are media, arts and culture really starting to censor themselves? (4)

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, Carsten Jensen, and Lotte Garbers, president of the Danish Writers Association (Dansk Forfatterforening), this week’s interview is with Tøger Seidenfaden, editor of the daily Politiken. ----------------------------------- Why does free expression continue to be a prominent political issue in Denmark? Is it under threat ? It is very important to understand the very specific context and logic of this debate in Denmark. It all started with the storm over the cartoons. Since then, the criteria used to measure freedom of expression is the degree of aggressiveness towards the Muslim minority. Crudely put, if we do not spend our time insulting Muslims from morning to night, it is because there is no longer any freedom of expression. This is the context in which you have to analyse the results of a poll recently published in the LO trade union’s magazine. The poll finds that there is widespread self-censorship by Danish artists. Which is false. Very open-ended questions were put to artists. They were asked, for example, if they ever limited themselves in their work. Then the replies were interpreted as evidence that artists are afraid of being the victims of a terrorist attack. It is much more complex than that. People can also censor themselves in the search for quality. In that case it is not censorship in the strict sense of the term. It is the result of reflecting about one’s values. The artists felt betrayed by the interpretation that was given to their replies. Why is the debate about free expression always so closely linked with Islam ? Because it is constantly linked to the question of integration, immigration and relations between the majority and the minorities. To give you an idea of the tenor of the debate, let’s take two recent examples. Firstly, the comments of a Danish parliamentarian, who received a letter from a woman in his district asking him to help her recover her two children, whom she could not see because of a conflict with her husband. The parliamentarian replied that she had only herself to blame for marrying a Muslim. When questioned by a journalist, he stood by what he said, insisting that all Muslims were like that. The president of the Association for the Right to Print Freely – which is concerned above all about Islamist threats – said in an interview that all Muslims raped their daughters. A debate followed in which a parliamentary representative of the (far-right) Danish People’s Party – a protestant pastor and party intellectual – added that Muslims not only raped their daughters but also killed their children. The party leadership acknowledged that his choice of words was unfortunate but insisted that there was a problem that needed discussing. Do you mean that one can say anything at all in Denmark ? Absolutely. Two years before the cartoons were published, we had a very lively debate in Europe about the resurgence of anti-Semitism. At no time did you hear anyone say it was a free speech issue. Everyone agreed that this resurgence was bad and that anti-Semitism had to be combated. No one said there was a need to defend the right to express anti-Semitic opinions. But that is what happened during the cartoons crisis. And it was for political reasons. Instead of having a debate about growing Islamophobia, this other subject was chosen. Any debate about Islamophobia was rejected. Instead people said it was a free speech issue. Subsequent events showed that this was partly true. That freedom of expression was at stake. But people did not wait until there were threats of violence to take this position. It was a way of thinking that was established at that time and it is the way the debate continues to be framed. Do you think this is a result of the political situation in Denmark since 2001 ? Definitely. And a result of the fact that the liberal-conservative government that has been in power since 2001 cooperates closely with the Danish People’s Party, which has positions that are similar to those of other European far-right parties but has managed to cloak itself in respectability. In this situation, the government cannot spend its time criticising its ally. Instead, it tends to legitimise it, which plays in its favour. The result is that you cannot have a debate about Islamophobia or racism in Denmark. It would be much too uncomfortable for the government. It would threaten the prevailing political orthodoxy. We are talking about dangers to freedom of expression. Don’t you see any danger ? The attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard obviously represents a threat to freedom of expression. But I would not say that, as a result, criticism of Islam has been silenced. The debate continues to be very lively and even violent. Two men were arrested last autumn in the United States on suspicion of preparing a terrorist attack on the Jyllands Posten newspaper. Then there was the attempt to murder Kurt Westergaard. On neither of these occasions did the Danish newspapers reprint the cartoons. Why ? The editors of the newspapers gave different explanations. What is clear is that this had nothing to do with free expression. People have finally understood in Denmark that these cartoons had become a symbol of hatred and represented a provocation and a humiliation for Muslims. Everyone has seen the cartoons. Everyone knows what this is about. Does this mean that not publishing them is an example of censorship or self-censorship? In my view it is a sign of maturity. What’s more, look at the United States, which has a much more entrenched free speech tradition than Europe. No American newspapers every published the cartoons. What do you deduce from that? Free speech is not regulated by legislation but by social norms in the United States. Free speech is not measured by the degree of aggressiveness or racism that is expressed. But in Denmark, if we cannot keep publishing the cartoons, it means that free speech is under threat. Are there other reasons for being concerned? In the autumn, the defence ministry tried to ban the publication of a book written by a member of an elite military unit. It was a censorship attempt that did not succeed for various reasons including the fact that we published the book in our newspaper. But the dangers to free expression were not mentioned at the time. People preferred to talk about the importance of protecting defence secrets because this case did not correspond to the dominant way the debate was being framed. Nonetheless, Denmark is definitely a country where freedom of expression knows no limits. Politiken recently published an apology to Muslims who may have felt offended by the cartoons which it reprinted in 2007. Why? In the summer of 2009, Faizal Yamani, the legal representative of around 100,000 descendents of the Prophet grouped in eight national organisations, asked the Danish newspapers that published Kurt Westergaard’s cartoon in February 2008 to apologise and not do it again. The negotiations with him allowed us to put into practice what we had constantly advocated, something that was missing from the cartoons affair – dialogue. With a bit more dialogue on the part of the Danish government in 2005-2006, there would have been no international crisis. What does the agreement say? We were very satisfied. It is the first example of an attempt to put an end to the unfortunate cartoons affair on the basis of an agreement respecting each side’s values. It is important to point out that Mr. Yamani abandoned his request to make us promise not to “do it again,” which allows us to preserve our freedom in the future. If we reprinted the cartoon tomorrow – something we have no desire to do – we would not have violated the accord. You have been accused of yielding to pressure from the Arab and Muslim world. Did the newspaper give up its freedom of expression ? As the agreement does not in any way limit our editorial freedom, the idea that we gave in to pressure is false. We wanted this agreement. Not to avoid a trial, which we would have won in any western court, I think. But to put into practice our belief in dialogue – both within Denmark and with the Muslim world (in the spirit of President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech). Is this part of the newspaper’s mission? Yes. We are neither diplomats nor politicians, but we are a responsible member of civil society. That is the perspective in which we accepted our responsibility. Haven’t you set a precedent and made things more difficult for yourselves in the future, not only for you but also for the other Danish newspapers, which are now exposed to the possibility of lawsuits ? The idea that an informal and symbolic agreement exposes other newspapers to the possibility of lawsuits is ridiculous. This agreement contains no sanction, does not refer to any court of arbitration and contains no other legal elements. It was simply an exchange of letters and texts. The risk of lawsuits is anyway nothing new in the relations between media and plaintiffs. On the contrary, we have shown an alternative way. Often all you need is for people to listen to each other a little bit. I hope that other Danish media take a similar decision. But that is a matter for their free will.