A notorious article about the alleged Israeli practice of harvesting organs from Palestinians recently appeared in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. Under pressure from the Israeli government (totally improper, in my opinion), the Swedish government used freedom of the press to justify its failure to condemn the newspaper for its article. The discrepancy between this “principled” stance and the same government’s response to the Danish Mohammed cartoon crises has drawn widespread criticism and ridicule.
Flemming Rose is the opinion and culture editor at Jyllands-Posten, and was responsible for commissioning the Mohammed cartoons back in the autumn of 2005. Mr. Rose is well-acquainted with what true freedom of the press means, and has some well-chosen words to say about the latest incident.
Our Swedish correspondent CB has kindly translated article featuring Flemming Rose that was published last Friday at the Swedish website Newsmill:
Flemming Rose on the Swedes’ selective defense of freedom of expression:
Swedish press can criticize Israel but not Islam
During the Mohammed crisis, the Swedish press lay low and tended to justify Muslim wrath, while viewing the Jyllands-Posten cartoons as a serious infringement of religious freedom. In the Israel affair the Swedish press disregards the legitimate part of Israel’s dissatisfaction, and too few have condemned Boström’s undocumented statements. That is pathetic, writes Jyllands-Posten‘s opinion and culture editor Flemming Rose, who was harshly criticized in Aftonbladet, among other places, for his publication of the now world-famous Mohammed cartoons.
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In February 2006, when the Mohammed crisis was at its height, with death threats against artists and editorialists, with demands from the Muslim world that the Danish government act against Jyllands-Posten and limit the constitutionally-protected freedom of speech, Swedish editorialists were asked about their view of the cartoons. Of course none of them was against freedom of speech as such, but on a practical level it was so, such was the support. Sweden was one of the countries in Europe in which the newspapers refused to reprint the cartoons so the readers themselves could make up their minds about them. Some editorials maintained that the issue wasn’t a question of free speech. Peter Melin, at the time chief editorialist for Sydsvenska Dagbladet, said:
“I already decided in September not to publicize the cartoons, since I viewed them as a provocation by Jyllands-Posten. I mean, that is not a question of freedom of speech. I consider the pictures to be blasphemy and provocation, and have no reason to follow that.”
The British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie, who received a death sentence from the ruling Iranian clergy because of passages in the novel The Satanic Verses, was of another opinion. He held that all papers should have printed the cartoons because — and here Rushdie spoke from his own experience — when you cave in to threats it will not lead to fewer threats, but to more, because you have shown that threats work. Rushdie apologized for having insulted Muslims at an early stage, but that apology just led to more demands for compliance, and today Rushdie bitterly regrets that apology.
The political editorialist for Aftonbladet, Helle Klein, was of the view that the Mohammed cartoons could be equated with scenes from the Iraqi jail Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers abused and humiliated Muslims. Klein didn’t make any distinction between a critique of religious symbols and ideas — an absolutely central part of the European history of thought, and a prerequisite for the democracies of the West — on the one side, and physical punishments of living individuals on the other. Helle Klein’s reasoning was a stunning example of a total moral and intellectual collapse.
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After the recently publicized article in Aftonbladet with serious allegations against the Israeli army, without any documentation or sources, it is for the same Helle Klein foreign to see anything problematic with Aftonbladet‘s editorial choices, while at the same time there are no limits to how stupidly she thinks the Israeli government has acted.
There’s no doubt that the Israeli government has acted unwisely, but the differences in the reactions of the Swedish press to both affairs provides a pattern and deserves some reflection. During the Mohammed crisis they lay low and tended to justify Muslim wrath, while viewing the cartoons of Jyllands-Posten as serious infringement of religious freedom. In the affair with Israel the Swedish press ignores the legitimate aspects of Israel’s dissatisfaction, while no one — if one disregards a few exceptions — has condemned Boström’s undocumented statements.
That is pathetic. In Sweden the issue has instead been solely about freedom of speech. And many have drawn parallels to the Mohammed crisis. The differences between the two stories are greater than the similarities, but before commenting on them I want to say a few words about priorities in the general debate about freedom of speech.
Somewhat simplistically, one can talk about three levels: most important is the right of expression itself. If journalists and papers are exposed to threats, harassment, and violence to silence them, what has been said is secondary, as long as it’s within the boundaries of the law. Therefore it is important to defend Geert Wilders in Holland when his life is threatened, even if many perceive his views as idiotic. For corresponding reasons many Swedish editorialists, including Aftonbladet, acted perfidiously during the Mohammed crisis.
The second level is the judicial limits of freedom of speech. What statements should be protected? Should blasphemy laws be reinforced or abolished? Should it be punishable to issue xenophobic statements and denials of the Holocaust? Does freedom of speech include the wearing of the burka? This debate is important — it is about how we co-exist in a globalized world.
Finally, on the third and lowest level, are the editorial decisions. Was it right or wrong of JP to publish the Mohammed cartoons? Should Aftonbladet‘s culture editorial office have refused Boström’s article on the grounds that it is an absurd conspiracy theory, or asked for documentation and sources? What demands should one have on publications when it comes to honesty and facts?
The Israeli government certainly made fools of themselves by first demanding an apology and then a condemnation from the Swedish government for the notorious article. That is no way for a government to behave in an open and democratic community, even if in contrast to the Mohammed crisis there hasn’t been any demand for intervention against Aftonbladet or criminalization of the current utterances. Contrary to this, that is what happened in Denmark, where local imams tried to fuel Muslim wrath against Denmark, which was slandered by the publicizing of deceitful stories in the Arabic press.
Compare that with the Jewish community in Sweden which has criticized the Israeli government, contributed to informing the Israeli public about how things work in Sweden, and supported how the Swedish government has handled the issue.
In the Muslim world editorialists who published JP’s cartoon were taken to court, while Israeli papers supporting the Swedish government haven’t been subjected to any threats. Israel is an open society with nine million inhabitants; the Muslim wrath is dominated by a closed community and a culture of threats. Danish embassies were set on fire and targeted by terror attacks. Danish citizens feared for their safety while Swedish interests aren’t threatened to the same extent.
Jyllands-Posten‘s cartoons were taken hostage in a debate about overarching self censorship in Europe, confirmed by daily examples, while Aftonbladet‘s article is a story using wild claims without any documentation, which should have started a debate about journalistic quality and ethics. Something the Israeli government prevented. However, it can take place anyway.
Hat tip: TB.