Questioning the rights and wrongs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 February, 2006, 12:00am

The controversy over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed has reached Hong Kong, with members of the Muslim community planning a rally tomorrow outside the Kowloon Mosque after lunchtime prayers.

They are organising a much bigger protest on Sunday at Victoria Park, which is expected to be attended by thousands of people.

The Muslims plan to hold prayers and distribute pamphlets explaining their position. Some have said that they were upset at the publication of cartoons poking fun at the Prophet, including one depicting him with a bomb-shaped turban.

The Hong Kong protests are expected to be peaceful, unlike those that have swept across other parts of the world. So far, more than a dozen people have died as a result of violence stemming from protests. Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were set on fire by demonstrators.

Since their original publication in Denmark, the series of 12 cartoons have appeared in many newspapers across the world, with editors defending their publication by invoking freedom of the press.

The International Federation of Journalists has called for a 'robust debate' on the issue, pointing out that the media's role is to promote better understanding between cultures.

A little common sense would help in this debate. It has long been accepted that freedom of speech is not absolute, and that it is illegal to improperly shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre or to incite a crowd to violence. There is also the old saying that your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.

A rational debate on the sensitive issue of religion is difficult at all times. It is rendered virtually impossible amid heightened tensions resulting from insensitive cartoons that mock other people's religious beliefs. Telling these people that the press has the right to insult them can only make matters worse.

In these circumstances, rationality flies out of the window and, all too often, is replaced by violent protests.

Certainly, the press has the right to poke fun at politicians -and even at religious figures - but it does not have a right to do or say things that are considered sacrilegious by believers of a particular religion.

None of the cartoons have been published in Hong Kong.

Quite understandably, the chairman of the Danish Union of Journalists Mogens Blicher Bjerregard - from the country that first published the cartoons - has warned against repression of freedom of the press, saying: 'It is critical for us that a solution to the newspaper cartoon affair does not result in any limitation on the freedom of the press.'

Certainly, the response to satire, to cartoons, even to hate mail should not be bomb threats or death threats. When these threats are directed at journalists - whether reporters, editors or cartoonists - they threaten the freedom of the press.

But as Mr Bjerregard said: 'It is self-evident that both freedom of speech and the underlying freedom of the press carry a responsibility. No freedom is boundless and it can come into conflict with other human rights.'

A question of judgment must enter the equation. Mr Bjerregard said that, in his view, the cartoons in question 'do not infringe human rights'.

However, the US State Department, a strong supporter of press freedom, has called the cartoons offensive. A press officer, Janelle Hironimus, told reporters: 'Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable. We call for tolerance and respect for all communities and for their religious beliefs and practices.'

The answer to governmental controls, surely, is for the press itself to exercise responsibility and restraint. As Mr Bjerregard said: 'Like so much else, freedom of the press is something which must be exercised responsibly.' Hear! Hear!

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator