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A day before Rushdie was to arrive in South Africa the invitation was withdrawn.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

Controversy

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.

Complaint

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 (www.mediareviewnet.com), a Gauteng-based advocacy group

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

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Palestinian kristallnacht

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Message of Kafr Qassem massacre lives on for Palestinians

by Jonathan Cook

In a conflict that has produced more than its share of suffering and tragedy, the name of Kafr Qassem lives on in infamy more than half a century after Israeli police gunned down 47 Palestinian civilians, including women and children, in the village.

This week Kafr Qassem’s inhabitants, joined by a handful of Israeli Jewish sympathizers, commemorated the anniversary of the deaths 52 years ago by marching to the cemetery where the victims were laid to rest.

They did so as the local media revisited the events, publishing testimonies from two former senior police officers who recalled the order from their commander to shoot all civilians breaking a last-minute curfew imposed on the village, which lies just inside Israel’s borders.

The two men, who were stationed at villages close to Kafr Qassem, suggested that, had they not personally disobeyed the order when confronted with Palestinians returning from work, the death toll would have been far higher.

Taking part in the annual march was one of the few survivors of the massacre. Saleh Khalil Issa is today 71, but back in 1956 he was an 18-year-old agricultural worker.
He remembered returning to the village on his bicycle, along with a dozen other workers, just after 5pm on 29 October 1956.
 
What he and the other villagers did not know was that earlier that day the Border Police, a special paramilitary unit that operates inside both Israel and the occupied territories, had agreed to set up checkpoints unannounced at the entrance to half a dozen Palestinian villages inside Israel.
 
The villages were selected because they lie close to the Green Line, the ceasefire line between Israel and Jordan, which was then occupying the West Bank, following the 1948 war.
At a briefing the commanding officer, Major Shmuel Malinki, ordered his men to shoot any civilian arriving home after 5pm.

Asked about the fate of women or children returning late, Malinki replied: "Without sentiment, the curfew applies to everyone." Pressed on the point, he responded in Arabic: "Allah yarahmum [God have mercy on them]", adding that this was the order from the brigade commander, Colonel Issachar Shadmi.

Mr. Issa said that, when his group reached the village, they were stopped by three policemen. "They told us to get off our bikes and form a line. The commander asked where we were from. When we replied ‘Kafr Qassem’, he took three steps back and told his colleagues, ‘Cut them down!’"

Mr. Issa, who was shot in the arm and leg, pretended to be dead among the bodies. He heard villagers’ cars arriving and the policemen ask the same question. Each new arrival was executed.

"Finally, I heard a bus arrive with female passengers, including young girls. I later learnt that there were 12 of them on board. They were forced to get out and shot too, though one survived like me."

Mr. Issa said the policemen checked to see if any of the victims were moving, and then fired more bullets at them. While the police officers were not watching, he crawled away and hid behind a tree. He was found the next morning and taken to a hospital in nearby Petah Tikva, along with 12 other injured.

Of the dead, seven were children and nine women, including one who was pregnant.
Mohammed Arabi, today 84, arrived at the same checkpoint later that evening. A tailor, he had spent the day in Tel Aviv buying materials and hitched a lift home in the back of a truck with 26 other villagers.

When the driver tried to drop 11 of them off just outside the village, they came under fire. The 11 jumped back into the truck, he said, and the driver sped up the hill towards the village.

"When we reached the entrance to the village, we saw bodies everywhere. The driver panicked, frightened to go back, but forced to drive over several corpses lying in the street to get away."

A short distance ahead, however, a detachment of policemen stopped them. Mr. Arabi overheard a debate between the policemen about whether to let them go home or take them to the eastern side of the village.

"I knew what was being suggested. The eastern side was the border with the West Bank. Palestinians were regularly shot on sight by the police for trying to cross into Israel. If we were killed there, it would look like we were infiltrators."

The commander said he would follow behind the truck in his jeep and escort them to the village’s eastern entrance.

"We were saved by a shepherd who at that moment was driving a large flock of sheep into the village. The sheep separated us from the police, and the truck driver saw his chance. He drove off at top speed and escaped.

"He took us to his home and all 27 of us hid there for three days, too frightened to come out."

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