Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons – to print or not to print?
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Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons – to print or not to print?

Editorial boards and TV networks have spent the last two days struggling with the dilemma of whether to air or print Charlie Hebdo’s contentious Muhammad cartoons. DW examines a legal and ethical minefield.

Read it in Deutsche Welle

Last week, few news outlets would have dared print caricatures like the ones on the front of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. That is after all, what made the satirical French magazine so unique. On Thursday, the lowly Berlin tabloid B.Z. gained international attention and praise on social media for covering its front page with Charlie Hebdo covers – while Twitter users demanded that major media networks follow suit.

Editorial meetings everywhere faced the same ethical question – publish the photos out of solidarity with the murdered colleagues in Paris, or refuse to risk the offense and possibly the safety of its employees? The world’s biggest news agency Associated Press, for one, did not change its “longstanding policy” of “not mov[ing] deliberately provocative images on the wire.” The New York Times also said that “after careful consideration,” it had decided that “describing the cartoons” would be enough.

The BBC has a policy of not depicting the Prophet Muhammad in any form – a rule that was roundly criticized this week on the network’s panel discussion show “Question Time.” There has been no official statement on the matter, but many noticed conspiratorially on Friday that the BBC’s editorial guidelines page was suddenly out of action.

On the CNN website, meanwhile, worldwide president Jeff Zucker summed up the dilemma: “Journalistically, every bone says we want to use and should use” the cartoons. But “as managers, protecting and taking care of the safety of our employees around the world is more important right now.”

In the face of much outrage at such decisions, many media outlets took the opposite view, and published online picture galleries of Charlie Hebdo covers. Deutsche Welle, for its part, loosened its policy of not publishing Muhammad caricatures, as long as such images “are necessary to the reporting.”

Journalistic ethics

The German Press Council – which publishes Germany’s Press Code and deals with complaints against the German press – has a clear take on the matter. “From what I have seen, [the cartoons] are absolutely acceptable as far as press ethics is concerned,” spokesman Oliver Schlappat told DW. “We have had no complaints up to now, so we have not looked into individual cases.”

“Of course, a defamation of religion can happen, and if it does happen, then that is a violation of our Code,” he added. “But with satire, there is a political or a social point behind such a caricature – as long as that is the case, and as long as no-one is being defamed, or a religion is not being made ridiculous – our position is that it is acceptable. I personally don’t see that in these caricatures.”

Schlappat also had praise for the deft way the B.Z. handled the dilemma. “The B.Z. did of course approach it quite aggressively, but personally I think they did it very skillfully too,” he said. “They didn’t take one particular Islam-critical cover, they showed that Charlie Hebdo attacked a very wide range of issues – they printed the images, but in a context that offered the reader a view of how critical that magazine is.”

Freedom to and freedom from

The legal situation in Germany, meanwhile, is complex. Laws regulating the freedom of speech are in a constant struggle against laws regulating defamation and the right to complain against perceived abuse – personal or religious.

“You can’t say that any particular caricature of Muhammad is banned – German law doesn’t say that,” said Steffen Bunnenberg, partner at the Berlin-based media law firm Bunnenberg and Bertram.

“The individual case is always the standard. Any court would look carefully at the caricature – how it was drawn, why it was drawn – is there some special public interest in it?”

There is a necessary amount of subjectivity when it comes to the interpretation of laws. “There are courts that are more ‘victim-friendly,’ that are more likely to ban caricatures, but others that are more reluctant to restrict freedom of speech,” he said.

But satire and polemic are generally protected under German law, and German courts that have dealt with such cases have generally erred on the side of freedom of speech. Cases where caricatures have been held up at right-wing anti-Islamic demonstrations have not resulted in prosecution.

“It’s also acceptable to use significantly sharper means, to express something using memorable or strong formulations, or indeed derogatory criticism, or exaggerated polemic,” Bunnenberg told DW.

“All these kinds of keywords are often used in such rulings. Even if the plaintiff feels they have been offended, that’s no reason not to allow publication.”

Theoretically, someone could now sue B.Z. or any other German newspaper on the grounds of religious defamation, but it seems unlikely they would be successful. A media organization would be likely to argue that printing the cartoons is in the public interest and part of relevant reportage after the Charlie Hebdo killings.

“Maybe some court might decide in favor [of banning publication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons], but I think the likelihood is very minor,” said Bunnenberg. “All the cartoons associated with the attack all have a topical relevancy, but there might also be caricatures that only serve to defame. I don’t want to rule it out, but I think it’s very unlikely that they would ban the cartoons published so far.”

And Bunnenberg adds, the press will find strength in numbers: “The more that do it, the stronger they are – the solidarity is very important.”