How should media decide whether to publish controversial images?

When the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005, protesters set fire to Danish embassies. Flemming Rose, the paper’s culture editor at the time, was the target of an assassination plot. More than 10 years later, Rose sits with Hari Sreenivasan in New York to talk about freedom of expression around the world.

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    When the Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten" published a dozen cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005, including one depicting the prophet with a bomb in his turban, it stirred outrage in the Muslim world. Protesters set fire to Danish embassies, and the paper's culture editor at the time, Flemming Rose, was the target of an assassination plot. Rose was in New York recently and I sat down with him to discuss those events, their impact on free expression, and the differing views on free speech around the world.


    Is free speech absolute?


    No, I don't think so. I think the United States, in fact, you have the best possible protection of speech anywhere in the world, with the First Amendment. But, of course, anywhere in the world, also in the United States, you do need limitations on speech.

    I think the key limitation that any society would need is criminalization of inciting to violence. I don't think anyone should have right to incite violence. And call on citizens to call up to kill other people.

    And there is a difference in the understanding of inciting to violence in the U.S. and in Europe. In the U.S., you need a clear and present danger. That is words should be followed by immediate action. While in Europe, you can be convicted of inciting violence even though there may not be a risk of immediate action following words. Personally, I am more inclined to favor the American interpretation.


    You've written in the past about the distinction between words and deeds in some ways that we sometimes limit speech because we equate speech with actual act.

  • ROSE:

    Yes. And that exactly what dictatorships do. I mean, why do dissidents behind the Iron Curtain end up in labor camps? Because their criticism of the government was being seen as, you know, almost physical attacks on the government, that they were undermining the socialist society in socialist Europe.

    And if you go back in history, it was church basically who was the driving force behind censorship. And the church perceived any criticism of religion or the church as a physical attack and therefore, you had the right to kill people who burned on the stake or — and killed them for other means. As soon as you began to distinguish between words and deeds, first, you worked out a doctrine that meant that people of other faiths have the right to live and practice their faith. Even though it wasn't the majority faith and later on you are also step by step has the right to different speech.

    So, the distinction between words and deeds is, in fact, crucial and it is, to me, a clear distinction between liberal democracy and a dictatorship.


    Under your broad definition of an incitement of violation or defamation of character, I'm sure you're critics have tried to point out to say, listen, wasn't inviting the cartoons a defamation of a religious character? Wasn't it almost an incitement of other people to rise up against this kind of — did you know this was going to happen?

  • ROSE:

    No. And that's one of the reasons why I'm looking at this issue in the way I do. I mean, I did not have any bad intentions or we had a debate in Denmark about self censorship when it comes to dealing with Islam and there were artists, translators, writers, who were submitting themselves to self censorship and some people were saying, no, this is not the case. Others were saying that is the case.

    And that was, you know, the context in which those cartoons were committed, to start a debate about this and to test if — whether self censorship is a fact or not. And secondly, whether it is based in fictional fear or in real fear.

    And ten years later, I would say that we have to answer those questions in the affirmative — yes, there was censorship when it comes to dealing with Islam, and that's understandable because people have been killed. I myself, I'm living with bodyguards around the clock. So, the fear is based in reality.


    Aren't publications around the world already self censoring on a whole host of issues?

  • ROSE:



    We choose not to say, OK, this is a very gory image. This might be too graphic, too violent for our audience, right? This is something that I don't want to share, just that editorial act and saying collectively in the newsroom or an institution, this is not what we're going to publish. Those are acts, right?

  • ROSE:

    Yes. I mean, the fact that you have a right to publish something doesn't mean it's always prudent and wise to do so. But the fact of the matter is that I think your news program and the newspaper where I work and other newspapers around the world, they publish things that are offensive to some people out there every day. The problem is, that it's only becoming a challenge when people react to it in a violent way or they start to threaten and intimidate.


    You've done probably a hundred interviews with different institutions all over the globe. And even the institution that you're speaking with now, we're probably unlikely to air the images of the cartoons in question, right? I mean, are we part of the problem? Are we self censoring? Are we living in culture of fear? Or is it, as you said, prudent for institutions to make this choice on whether or not the image needs to be associated with the story.

  • ROSE:

    I would say after the killing of "Charlie Hebdo", of — some of them were, in fact, my friends, I think it would have made sense to show viewers or readers why they were killed. I mean, we are now just having a general conversation about freedom of expression. I don't think necessarily that that requires to show the readers, you know, that part of my story.

    But if you have — if you had violence, and people are asking, why were these people, you know, killed, I would say as an editor that it would be relevant, that it would make sense to show the audience why they were killed. There is no automatic relationship between the publication of those images and the violence, between the image of the violence there are individuals who have reason — I mean, they are not animals. They are not small children. They are able to make a qualified judgment about how to react.

    And I think we should treat one another as adults and not as small kids or animals without moral judgment.

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