In the wake of the protests against the Anti-Islamic film ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ a number of leading international press organisations have warned that independent media and good journalism must not suffer as a result of the reaction to the film.
The International Press Institute and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers have written a joint editorial emphasising the importance of free media and arguing: “Let’s not let the harmful acts of a few overshadow the rest.”
The editorial, entitled “At times like these, media freedom and independence are more important than ever,” argues that the reaction to the “unbearably stupid, incredible offensive portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad, with productions values of a high-school parody,” must not be allowed to spread throughout the media.
Instead, the media has a responsibility to correct misconceptions and provide clear information related to issues of free expression in different societies to at least try to ensure that similar events do not occur in the future.
Many in the Arabic media have reportedly condemned the film, but also the violence, according to media reviews by the BBC and CNN. But, at the same time, there is a widespread belief in the region that such a film could never be made without official sanction, and that the authorities can and should take action to ban such offensive portrayals.
Though much of this belief clearly stems from personal conviction, it also illustrates a misunderstanding about the role of free expression in Western societies, where even offensive speech is protected. This misunderstanding could be corrected by strengthening the news media so that citizens have access to broader array of ideas and perspectives. There is a universal tendency for people to believe stereotypes, and only a diverse and critical media can help challenge the misunderstandings or even misinformation on which such stereotypes are based.
That's why media freedom and independence are more important than ever. And why new opportunities for building and sustaining independent media around the world must be a priority: so that people who promote hatred and violence can be countered not with more violence, but through discussion and debate in the national and international press.”
The piece quotes a number of journalists from the Arab world, who argue that the violent reactions to the film have been widely condemned by Muslims the world over, and that this is a message which has not been conveyed by the media in general. Indeed, the article argues that coverage has focused on violent protests against the film and not the demonstrations which have been staged to denounce the violence.
“As the protests against the U.S. (and more recently against the British and German embassies in Sudan, and with France closing embassies in the wake of the publication of new satiric cartoons) grow, the role of media grows ever more important. Social media provide a way for people around the world to share instant updates and express a broad range of personal views. But only “traditional” news media have the mandate and ability to put the film, the protests and the response to those protests into their political and cultural contexts.
It should be repeatedly underscored that those who made “Innocence of Muslims” represent the feelings of very few. It should also be highlighted that, in the United States, even forms of hate speech are protected under the First Amendment, and there is precious little that the government can do to stop its distribution or punish its creators, as revolting as this little production may be.
Western media can also better explain the reaction in the Arab world by, distinguishing between who is calling for demonstrations, and who is hoping for (or involved in) violent attacks and looting. There is more to these protests than an extreme reaction to an amateurish film made by a bunch of marginal, professional haters. There are long-held resentments toward the United States that are resurfacing (and can be exploited by the self-serving) and there are vastly different understandings of what kinds of speech should be restricted. For example, the New York Times reported on Sunday that the book The Da Vinci Code was banned by several Middle Eastern countries because it was considered an affront to Christianity and that, for example, Egypt forbids “insulting any of the three Abrahamic religions.” The reporter also notes that in Egypt, there is a “widespread belief” that Holocaust denial is illegal in the United States, which it is not.
This is the type of thing American audiences should know in order to better understand the protests in Egypt, and it demonstrates the kind of misinformation that the media should seek to address.
It’s a complicated world. At times like these, it is more important than ever that the media be free to report on the truth, and that they exercise the judgment to do so in a calm and clear-eyed way. Let us not let the harmful acts of a few – the hateful film, the vicious attacks – overwhelm the ability of people to be properly informed by the only institutions with a clear mandate to do so: the independent news media.”
Similar sentiments were shared by alumni of the UN Alliance of Civilisations (AOC) Fellowship programme in a statement to coincide with the 67th General Assembly of the UN. Excerpts from the statement read:
“We believe that the General Assembly of the United Nations, comprising all 193 Members States, provides a unique and crucial forum for multilateral discussions. For a life in freedom, dignity and security, we urge all participants in this 67th session to exert their responsible leadership and make the dialogue of civilisations an absolute priority. The effort to bridge the cultural divide needs to be redoubled, promoting mutual understanding, trust and respect among and within societies at all levels.
We respect the right of freedom of expression, and are hopeful that all those availing themselves of that right do so in a responsible manner. We believe that any form of provocation can make misunderstanding bigger and feed the spiral of violence. Quoting a recent interview of Jorge Sampaio, UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations and former President of the Portuguese Republic, we believe it’s important to recognise that one person’s contemptible actions do not necessarily represent an entire nation, or everyone in a particular group or of a certain faith. The overwhelming majority must occupy its rightful place in the dialogue, and not leave it to extremists.”
“Cultural diversity is our world’s most meaningful and precious asset. Let’s join our voices and efforts to foster pluralism and address in an appropriate way the alarming rise of all kinds of extremism.”