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Freedom never absolute

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Accepted notions of what is right ensure that media are never totally free of constraints

By Suraya Dadoo

In October 1988, the Weekly Mail newspaper, and the Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw) found itself at odds with the South African Muslim community, after their invitation to Salman Rushdie to be the keynote speaker at the Weekly Mail Book Week.

Released on September 26, 1988, Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses contained shocking passages about some of the most revered personalities in Islam.

A dream sequence in the book portrayed the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) engaging in adultery and homosexual practices. He described Mohammed’s companion Bilal ibn Rabbah, (a freed black slave who delivered the first call to prayer) as an "enormous black monster".

The book sparked widespread global protests by Muslims, and The Satanic Verses was immediately banned in India and Muslim-majority countries. A coalition of South African Muslim community organisations demanded that the Weekly Mail and Cosaw retract Rushdie’s invitation.

The Islamic alliance embarked on a national campaign to mobilise the support of the Muslim community in opposing the Rushdie visit.

Book Week organisers argued that the reaction and demands of the Muslim community were excessive. For them, the renunciation of Rushdie’s invitation would amount to censorship, and they were not prepared to withdraw the invitation.

A day before Rushdie was to arrive in South Africa the invitation was withdrawn.

Cosaw maintained that the only reason behind their decision was their inability to guarantee Rushdie’s safety in South Africa, in the light of death threats that were allegedly made by Muslims.

Since then, Muslims have been perceived as the enemy of freedom of expression.


The Rushdie controversy erupted at a time when the Cold War was ending. The Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979, the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, and the fall the Berlin Wall in 1989, signalled the end of the communist threat.

Add to that the36in the Middle East, particularly the intensifying Palestinian struggle for liberation, the 1980’s hostage crisis in Libya, and the issuing of a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, and you end up with the stereotype of Islam as a violent religion that breeds terrorism, that was replacing communism as a threat to global security and freedom.

This, coupled with the deliberate, distorted depiction of Islam’s most sacred personalities and texts by various authors at the time, including Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, and later Ayaan Hirsi Ali, meant that Islam was becoming synonymous, not only with violence and terrorism – but also with opposing free speech in the 1990s and beyond.

Fast forward to 2006 and the Danish cartoons controversy. Most of the media fraternity in this country were incensed when Islamic organisations obtained an interdict preventing local newspapers from publishing the insulting cartoons about Mohammed (PBUH).

South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) chairman at the time, Joe Thloloe, described the interdict as "alarming", and amounted to pre-publication censorship.

The restraint on the media was also slammed by the Freedom of Expression Institute, which called it a "major threat to press freedom".

Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya said it was a "huge blow for the media". The South African Muslim community was again seen as a threat to freedom of expression.

Thabo Mbeki, reacting to the granting of the interdict, expressed in parliament a widely-held belief that the rights of citizens to freedom of speech must be balanced with the rights of others to be protected from harm or insult.

This balancing act, together with political and corporate interests, as well as socially-defined and accepted notions of what is tolerable and what is not, ensures that the media, both locally and globally, will never be totally free of constraints.

For instance in April 2003, a Danish illustrator submitted a series of cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Jesus Christ to Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper which initially published the offensive cartoons of Muhammed (PBUH). The paper’s editor refused to publish them on the grounds that they might be offensive to Christians.

Clearly, the feelings of Christians, and the reverence of Christ by a significant percentage of the world’s population, outweighed considerations about media freedom, and the right to an individual’s freedom of expression – and rightly so.


Similarly, a judgment of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) which upheld a complaint against Glo Mobi over its Ahmed the Terrorist ringtone concluded that "there is nothing light-hearted and humorous in depicting a human being as a terrorist", especially when it is implied that his religion leads him or her towards such behaviour.

ASA found that the advert associated Islam with terrorism, and ordered it off the air.

The South African Hindu Maha Sabha recently demanded that a blasphemous crossword attacking the Hindu goddess Kali in a Christian newspaper be removed. The newspaper removed the crossword and apologised to the Hindu community.

In August Random House cancelled the publication of The Jewel of Medina, a novel that has been described as "pornographic" for its explicit description of the relationship between the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and his youngest wife Ayesha.

These are just a few incidents that illustrate the precarious balance between freedom of expression and respect for the various religious beliefs of billions – not just Islam.

To describe these incidents as examples of censorship and to single out Islam as an opponent of free speech would, therefore, be off the mark.

Freedom of expression has never been – nor should it be – absolute.

Suraya Dadoo is a researcher for Media Review Network (, a Gauteng-based advocacy group

Published on the web by Daily News on October 29, 2008.


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