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The Mapp Report: Cartoons and freedom of speech

The Mapp Report

The cartoons and freedom of speech

Were the newspapers and television stations right to publish the cartoons? Do they have responsibility to consider any other factors except the right to publish?

Freedom of speech is more than a theoretical concept. People must feel free to actually exercise it. But as with all freedoms there is a responsibility that requires us to think about the consequence before we exercise it.

Of course the media had the right to publish the cartoons. That is what free speech means.

The idea of free speech ran hard up against the Censors Office decision to ban videos on the gay lifestyle from being distributed by the Human Rights Action Group. The Group was absolutely right to challenge the decision of the Censor because it wasn’t just a suggestion of whether it was in good taste to distribute the videos, but the Censors decision to prohibit their distribution. The Human Rights Action Group would have been banned from exercising their freedom of speech.

The argument of whether or not to publish the cartoons of Mohammad is not whether there is freedom of speech to do so; clearly there is. Rather, the issue is whether it was wise to do so.

We know from experience that there are particular sensitivities around religion. The decision in 1998 by Te Papa to display the Virgin in a Condom was particularly controversial. I received a large amount of correspondence on this issue, mostly from people offended by the display. I wrote to Te Papa expressing my concern that the exhibition was offensive to many Christians. I did not consider that Te Papa, our national museum, should deliberately set out to offend Christians or any other religious group.

Clearly, Muslims are very sensitive about these issues – judging by the protests they are clearly more so than other religions. Many of the protests are extreme, and play into the hands of those who talk and write of the clash of civilisations. It is obviously stupid for radical Muslims to say, “If you publish the cartoons, I will kill you.” Governments that encourage such protests should be subject to international condemnation.

However, this whole issue further illustrates how tensions are already running high between the Muslim world and the West. There is little to be gained by inflaming the situation further or by provoking reaction even if we know the reactions are going to be excessive.

The media can say they were exercising private rights and do not have any public responsibilities. However decisions of mainstream media do have public impact. The way in which religions are satired or commented on does matter. No Christians have said they are immune to criticism, but the Virgin in a Condom was seen deliberately to offend. Similarly showing Mohammad with a bomb on his head has the same effect – it should be obvious that would be deeply offensive to most Muslims.

The editors of the Dominion Post and the Christchurch Press have now apologised. I presume they did so because they saw that at least some of the cartoons went beyond reasonable comment and into the area of gratuitous insult.

Freedom of speech does have responsibilities. How many think it is reasonable for us to gratuitously insult other people, even though we have the right to do so?

Dr Wayne Mapp

Visit my website for more information at:

13 February 2006

SuperBlues Monday Morning Tea Group
with speaker
Dr Jackie Blue

24 February 2006
Business luncheon at Takapuna Boating Club with guest speaker
Hon Bill English

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