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IPI: Editorial Independence in Cartoon Controversy

IPI Supports Editorial Independence in Cartoon Controversy, Calls on Politicians to Recognise this Principle When Appealing for Calm

Speaking as a global press freedom organisation representing editors from the print and broadcasting media, the International Press Institute (IPI) affirms its support for the right of editors to have the final decision on content, while also calling on politicians to accept this principle when appealing for calm.

Originally printed on 30 September 2005 by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed were later reprinted by several media organisations, both in Europe and around the world. The result has been widespread, and often violent, protests by Muslims. Since then, more than ten people have been killed.

The pressure on the media has also been severe. Staff at the Jyllands-Posten received threats, while the original cartoonists are now in hiding under the protection of Danish police. In Western societies, some editors were dismissed for reprinting the cartoons, and others have come under intense pressure to apologise, while editors in the Muslim world have been fired, detained and arrested and their publications closed down.

Commenting on the controversy, IPI Director Johann P. Fritz said, "I can fully understand that many people have been offended by the cartoons; however, there is an essential principle at stake, which goes to the core of press freedom, and this is the principle that editors decide on content."

"Of course, this does not mean that editors and media organisations should not be mindful of religious sensitivities, the potential consequences of their decisions, or the possible need to seek advice from key decision-makers," said Fritz.

"While it is entirely appropriate for politicians to call for tolerance and calm, I am disappointed that some politicians have chosen to frame their responses in terms of the media's responsibility without balancing such calls against the need for religious leaders and the heads of Muslim countries to do likewise."

At present, IPI is deeply concerned about calls for further legal initiatives to curb freedom of the media; for example, the apparent attempt by the Organization of the Islamic Conference to give the new United Nations Human Rights Council the power to "prevent instances of intolerance, discrimination, incitement of hatred and violence arising from any actions against religion."

At the international level, there are already sufficient legal protections for freedom of the press and religion. The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted in 1966 by the United Nations, sets out legal provisions safeguarding not only freedom of the press (Article 19), but also religion (Article 18). However, there are important limitations on these rights (see Annex A: http://www.freemedia.at/Protests2006/pr_Cartoon_Controversy14.02.06.htm#Annex_A).

Furthermore, the ICCPR contains restrictions, for example, Article 20, paragraph 2, which states, "Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law." Incitement, by general understanding, is defined as "a causal link between hate speech and a criminal act of violence that can be proven," said Fritz.

The cartoon controversy has unfortunately also led some representatives at the national and European levels to call for additional self-regulatory codes, which infringes the media's independence.

Media organisations in Europe are already involved in a network of voluntary self-regulatory methods, including national press councils, ombudsmen, and codes of conduct, among others, all of which provide accountability and governance on a variety of ethical issues. Fresh calls for voluntary codes of conduct reveal a failure to appreciate the work already undertaken by the media in this area, as well as a misunderstanding of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which already contains numerous limitations on freedom of the press (see Annex B: http://www.freemedia.at/Protests2006/pr_Cartoon_Controversy14.02.06.htm#Annex_B).

Fritz added, "In that sense, we must recognise the editor's fundamental right to decide upon content, but this right entails responsibility and respect for the internationally defined limitations on press freedom. Editors, wherever they stand - local, national or international - must nowadays have global horizons."

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