Freedom House Statement on Freedom of Expression and the Danish Cartoons

Washington, DC

Throughout its history, Freedom House has maintained a strong commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.  Likewise, from its inception in 1941, Freedom House has supported the principles of freedom of belief, equality among religious believers and racial groups, and the proposition that a democratic society has the obligation to foster harmony and mutual respect among a diverse citizenry. 

Some argue that these two core democratic principles - free expression on the one hand and respect for religious diversity on the other - are at odds in the recent controversy over the Danish cartoons. 

We disagree.  At the heart of the cartoon controversy is the right, now and in the future, of an independent and uncensored press - and artists and writers in other venues - to comment on the issues of the day without interference from the state or threat from discomfited or aggrieved groups. 

Like others, Freedom House was dismayed by the publication of those cartoons that many Muslims have deemed offensive to their religion and their Prophet.  In their writings and depictions, journalists and artists have an obligation to respect the values and sensitivities of religious believers and minority groups.  At the same time, it may well be that the cartoon that has drawn the most commentary - showing the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban - was actually a jibe, not at Islam or its adherents, but at those extremists who have besmirched the name of a major religious faith by resorting to violence in its name.

The publication of the cartoons does not stand apart from the many instances of hard-edged, polemical, blatantly unfair, and even obnoxious commentary that occur regularly in societies with an independent media and traditions of free speech. Democratic societies have ways of dealing with biased or insulting journalistic expression by means of robust and free public debate and criticism.  In the current controversy, the self-correcting abilities of democratic institutions, including the press itself, through responsible professional bodies and fine-tuning of standards and norms, have been forgotten.

The larger and more urgent issue, however, is not journalistic fairness or propriety, but the threats to freedom of expression posed by those who have resorted to intimidation and violence in their response to the cartoons' publication or who have manipulated and goaded others to a violent response. 

Freedom of expression is a cherished and necessary value in free societies.  Freedom of expression and of the press have been made secure in broad parts of the world through many years of struggle and sacrifice.  A free press is the first target of dictators and authoritarians; even in stable democracies, journalistic and artistic expression frequently comes under pressure from political leaders and interest groups. That a free press is a necessary bastion in the defense of freedom of religion ought not be forgotten.

While some of the response to the cartoons has been conducted in the spirit of democratic discourse that usually marks debate over media policies, the voices of moderation have been overwhelmed by those who have advocated and orchestrated acts of violence throughout many countries in the Muslim world. Those government officials and clerics who have added fuel to the fire by announcing so-called "fatwas" that promise financial rewards to those who might murder the Danish cartoonists may be the most reprehensible. 

The motives that drive the regimes and extremist movements responsible for the violence may be complex, but they certainly include an attitude of unrelenting hostility towards freedom of speech, expression, and the press - and just as often hostility toward true freedom of religious belief and religious expression.  The regimes in Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are among the world's most repressive governments.  Press freedoms are nonexistent in these societies, as are truly independent opposition voices.  Were they to achieve power, the extremist non-governmental movements who also bear responsibility for provoking acts of violence in this context would eliminate whatever independent and dissident voices exist as a first order of business.   They would also eliminate freedom of religious belief, another core democratic value that is at stake in the cartoon controversy. 

For some at least, the riots, burnings, and sackings of embassies and foreign businesses have a purpose that goes beyond an expression of anger over perceived insults to the Prophet.  They seek, at minimum, to create an environment in which self censorship will replace robust debate in matters regarding fundamental issues of international affairs and public policy.  Beyond this objective, some seek to enshrine in international agreements demands to curb "blasphemy" or "hate speech."  These are pernicious and dangerous arguments.  Such efforts must be seen for what they really are: efforts to de-legitimize free speech through international regulation.  Freedom House has opposed such efforts in the past, and will do so again now and in the future.   

It is essential that those who cherish democratic freedoms recognize the stakes in this controversy.  The adversaries of freedom of expression have resorted to demagoguery, scare tactics, and violence to advance their cause.  The democratic world, curiously, has responded with confusion, bewilderment, and in some cases a lack of intellectual clarity.  Freedom House is especially concerned about statements of vacillation and compromise voiced by government leaders, commentators, and even advocates of civil liberties from the United States and other democracies. 

Freedom House also rejects the claim, mounted by some even in the democratic world, that in an increasingly interdependent world, the commitment to freedom of expression must be modified to ensure that religious or national sensitivities are never challenged. While it is true that the round-the-clock, global nature of public discourse and news reporting places additional burdens on the press to ensure accuracy and to consider tone, it also requires that the democracies remain steadfast in their commitment to fundamental principles.  There are, after all, millions who live under dictatorship and repression who yearn and courageously advocate for the freedoms, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion, that we enjoy as a matter of course. For democrats to fail to stand firmly behind a basic value like freedom of expression in their own societies would send a devastating message to those involved in the struggle for freedom under oppressive conditions.

Finally, Freedom House recognizes that, under current international conditions, a controversy involving the deepest feelings of the world's Muslim population poses extraordinary challenges to any discussion about the role of the press in the non-Muslim world. In its political analysis and commentary, Freedom House has for more than three decades consistently proceeded on the basis of respect for the Muslim faith.  At the same time, we have been just as consistent in speaking of the lack of freedom and denial of rights that plagues Middle East societies and in placing principal blame for this freedom deficiency on autocratic ruling elites and extremist religious movements - the very same leaders and forces who  have played the most insidious role in the cartoon controversy.

We at Freedom House are persuaded that a resolution to the issues raised by the publication of the cartoons can emerge only from a dialogue that combines sensitivity and common sense with intellectual honesty and candor, and that is anchored on a firm commitment on all sides to an absolute support for freedom of expression.

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