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A Question Of Ethics vs Publish And Be Damned

A Question Of Ethics vs Publish And Be Damned

By Edward Gay

To print or not to print - that is the question which is asked by newspaper editors around the world everyday of the week.

It no doubt troubled the editors of the Christchurch Press and Dominion-Post earlier this week - but obviously not enough.

Their argument centers around freedom of speech - a noble cause and one that is championed by the majority of journalists employed in New Zealand today. But is there a difference between freedom of expression and abuse?

Do cartoons - portraying a minority's religious figure in a derogative manner - constitute as intelligent questioning and the challenging of power? A good news story challenges authority - usually an authority that is accountable to the paper's readers, or at the very least has some direct impact on their lives.

It is also accurate, balanced, and fair. And while the Mohammed cartoon could be seen as challenging authority - or depicting a sacred figure as evil and violent - it is certainly not fair, balanced, or accurate.

Like many cartoons it dwells on one aspect of the figure it is attempting to 'portray' and ignores all the other aspects of the character. In this case the cartoon portrays the violent side of the extremist factions of Islam, while ignoring the peace-loving, moderate majority.

It should be noted that while the international media reports stories under the headlines: 'The Clash of Civilisations', 'Cartoon Crisis', and 'The Cartoon that Shook the World' the vast majority of the world's Muslims are not bombing embassies, burning flags, or threatening violence. It should also be noted that the cartoon was originally published in September - not last week. And yet it is only now - five months later - that various editors, journalists, and media commentators are mounting their 'freedom-of- speech' high horse.

So what has this achieved?

The Editor of the Dominion-Post has called the printing of this cartoon a test for Islam.

But the idea that it is up to the media - especially the 'Western' media to 'test' Islam is disturbingly patronising.

Others have asked - 'where do you draw the line?' The space for a line to be drawn in the sand is huge - a desert in fact.

And yet the majority of writing has been at both extremes of the scale - with an Iranian paper now encouraging cartoonists to satirise the holocaust. And on the other side we have the ideology of 'freedom of expression' - now defined by some editors and journalists as the right to print anything about anybody and display it in any way. There is a difference between freedom of expression and not distancing a minority already suffering at the hands of poor analysis, one dimensional coverage, and in some cases out and out racist coverage by the media.

Freedom of speech is a privilege - and with privileges come responsibilities. Those that argue for the freedom of speech should also argue for balance, accuracy, and fairness.


Edward Gay is a journalist working north of Auckland, New Zealand.


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