September 20, 2012 - Updated on January 25, 2016

“Traditional values” vs freedom of information

No-one should waste time going to see the Z-grade film “Innocence of Muslims”. However, do political leaders and journalists have to blame the author of this nonsensical piece of work for the ensuing violence, and plead mitigating circumstances for the destructive wrath of the fundamentalists?

Conciliatory statements have been made to try to douse the flames. Deploring the “excesses of free speech” may be a wise move tactically. In the long term, it jeopardises freedom of information, which is a prerequisite for political, economic and social development.

Danish journalists felt very lonely after the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005. A plot to kill one of the cartoonists was uncovered in 2008 and an actual attempt was made on his life in 2010. Last year, the owner of a Pakistani newspaper was shot dead for opposing the country’s blasphemy law. In Bangladesh and Afghanistan, journalists have been imprisoned for the same alleged offence.

Western news organizations have no qualms about reporting on extremism, but who can deny there are some religions to which they can refer only with certain precautions? Nothing can justify an order to respect religious faith more than articles of political or moral belief. Are these media organizations, smarting from their wounds, still respectful of other faiths and the factual truth? If everyone imposed their own taboos, journalists would be reduced to commenting on the weather. They would have to praise thunderstorms out of devotion to Zeus.

In 2010, the organization Reporters Without Borders said it was extremely concerned about the resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council on defamation of religions at the behest of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Fortunately,
the UN General Assembly decided to deal with religious intolerance by other means. Could there be another attempt? The sectarian supporters of the crime of blasphemy have not laid down their arms. In Tunisia, the version of the constitution now under discussion criminalises anything that attacks religion. The head of the ruling Ennahda party, Rachid Ghannouchi, said recently: “There should be an international law making attacks on religion a crime, and this should be done through the United Nations.”

Aside from the blasphemy issue, a broad coalition is calling worldwide for restrictions on information freedom in the guise of “defending traditional values”. On 14 September, Russia, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan put forward a motion in the UN General Assembly calling for a “code of conduct for information security”, in the name of diversity of history and culture.

In the Human Rights Council, the Russian rapporteur Vladimir Kartashkin has advocated highly retrograde positions such as basing all international standards on unspecified “traditional values”.

Since the outcry by some 30 NGOs in February this year, things have taken a turn for the better. But who could promise that in the future, universal human rights will not be challenged by “traditional values”, which will undoubtedly mean those endorsed by the powers that formulate them?

We should point out here the two year-sentences in a labour camp imposed on the Pussy Riot women for incitement to religious hatred. Uzbekistan increasingly invokes “insult to the traditions and national sentiments of the Uzbek people” to justify cracking down on independent journalists. The West is not above criticism. The United States prides itself on the First Amendment, but does not believe that WikiLeaks is covered by it. In Europe, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union guarantees freedom of religion and the right to criticize religions, but some member states fail to ensure this is safeguarded. Thus in 2010, Ireland made blasphemy a crime liable to a fine of 25,000 euros.

The political and diplomatic thrust led by Russia, China, the Organization of the Islamic conference and the states of Central Asia, backed by violent Islamic groups, is worrying. We do not mean that the West has a more lucid and balanced world view than the rest of the world. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman demonstrated in their work Manufacturing Consent that there exists “two weights and two measures” in the West, which distinguish “worth and unworthy” victims. We should not expect opinions in the rest of the world to be similar to those in Europe and the United States. They are different, and that is a good thing because they see things to which we are blind, and vice-versa.

Freedom of speech and information is a universal principle. If I expect it for myself, I must want other people to have it, too. If I deny it to other people, they will not grant it to me. No-one knows how to use it perfectly. But we should focus on preventing the servants of doctrinaire propaganda from using all forms of pressure and trickery to whittle away at article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

By Christophe Deloire, director general, Reporters Without Borders