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Muhammad and the issue of media freedoms

The Mail & Guardian could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had refused to run with Zapiro's cartoon. But what would that have meant to media freedom and to freedom of expression in SA?

The Mail & Guardian made international news recently after the paper published a satirical cartoon by Zapiro depicting the prophet Muhammad lying on a coach and moaning to a psychiatrist: "Other prophets have followers with a sense of humour!"

The cartoon forms part of a global protest against religion limiting freedom of expression. Zapiro drew the cartoon in response to the Facebook page "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day." The social media group – which currently has well over a hundred thousand members – was created as a response to a radical Muslim group that threatened the creators of “South Park” because the Comedy Central show intended to depict Muhammad in a bear suit.

“South Park” came under attack from a radical group called Revolution Muslim which issued an ominous warning to producers Trey Parker and Matt Stone that read: “We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid, and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”

Van Gogh was a Dutch filmmaker who was gunned down by a Muslim extremist after making a documentary critical of a number or religions, including Islam. Van Gogh's 'crime' was drawing attention to the abuse of Muslim women in some Islamic societies.

Stone and Parker capitulated to the threats of violence and used self-censorship to alter their show so as to not incur the wrath of the Muslim community.

Back home the Council of Muslim Theologians in South Africa tried to block the publication of Zapiro's cartoon with court action, but failed. When the Mail & Guardian hit the streets staff at the paper received a barrage of threatening phone calls including the anonymous remarks: "You've got to watch your back" and "This will cost him his life." These are threats that were obviously leveled at Zapiro.


It is said that media freedom is the very oxygen of democracy.

Explaining his decision to publish, editor Nic Dawes said: “This is an enormously complex and sensitive subject, but I felt that Zapiro had attempted to handle it with care. Unlike some other cartoonists who have tackled the same subject, he had not used Islamophobic imagery, nor had he mocked the prophet. What the cartoon does do, is use humour to ask why the concerns of one religious group should be privileged above those of others, and above the freedom of expression rights enshrined in our constitution.”

The National Press Club (NPC) was not convinced and chairperson Yusuf Abramjee called for a meeting with Zapiro and Dawes, saying that as a Muslim he found the cartoon offensive. He added: “We promote freedom of speech and expression. But, let's not forget that it is not absolute. In this case, it must be weighed against religious tolerance.”

It's undoubted that the Mail & Guardian could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they – like the creators of “South Park” – applied self-censorship and had refused to run with Zapiro's cartoon. But what would that have meant to media freedom and to freedom of expression in South Africa?

In recent times these freedoms have come under increasing attack in this country. Towards the end of last year the Films and Publications Amendment Act 3 of 2009 (Amendment Act) was signed ostensibly under the guise of protecting 'children's rights'. In reality the change to this act has introduced a system of pre-publication censorship and self censorship that undermines the spirit of South Africa's constitution.

January saw two eTV journalists subpoenaed to reveal their sources after they did a story related to crime and the 2010 Soccer World Cup. This illustrated the need for the law to be amended so as to better protect journalists and saw the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) calling for Section 205 of the CPA to be amended to better protect journalists' rights.

Next came the ANCYL's attempts to intimidate political journalists with a clumsy and shoddy smear campaign let by the league's Floyd Shivambu. When complaints were made to the ANC and the ANCYL, Shivambu dismissed the journalists as a “mob” and “gang” unworthy of consideration.

This was followed by Julius Malema's verbal attack on BBC journalist Jonah Fisher. Malema called Fisher a “bastard”, “bloody agent” before expelling Fisher from an ANCYL press conference

The event captured the world's attention and received major global news coverage. Despite this an ANC disciplinary committee took the decision to withdraw charges related to this incident after receiving a plea bargain on behalf of Malema. Local media organization South African National Editor's Forum (Sanef) lambasted the decision, saying the ANC's lack of response was an attack on media freedom, amounted to censorship and was unacceptable conduct towards the media.

Media freedom came under further attack in May when Labour Department director general Jimmy Manyi accused the media of abusing media freedoms to turn President Jacob Zuma's office into “the most disrespected office in the land.” Manyi then called for freedom of expression to be reviewed in South Africa.

It is said that media freedom is the very oxygen of democracy. That freedom of information and the public right to know is a real and fragile breath by which a democracy lives or dies.

Dawe's decision to publish Zapiro's Muhammad cartoon needs to be viewed in the context of the multiple threats to South Africa's media freedoms. A considered and courageous decision, it opened the door to difficult debate at considerable risk to the newspaper, rather than taking the easy route of capitulating to self censorship. The decision to publish must be applauded as it encourages important debate and gives our democracy life, at a time when media freedoms is under increasing threat.

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