At times like these, media freedom and independence are more important than ever {IPI/WAN-IFRA Editorial}

In the United States, a movie trailer of uncertain origin is posted on YouTube, purporting to promote “Innocence of Muslims”. Though the trailer is an unbearably stupid, incredibly offensive portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad, with production values of a high-school parody, the trailer sets off a wave of anti-American violence in the Middle East.

Though the average American would be offended by the portrayal, and would agree the film does not represent common perceptions about Islam, American embassies across the Middle East and North Africa have become the target of protests and attacks. The spread, scale and intensity of the protests are surprising when one considers how marginal and absurd the film is that purportedly sparked them.

Sustained demonstrations against U.S. embassies have been reported in some 20 countries around the world, and have resulted in several deaths. The most shocking attack occurred on a consulate in Libya, where four Americans, including the ambassador, Christopher Stevens, were killed. (Officials in Libya have since arrested a number of people in connection with what may have been a premeditated attack.)

Western media coverage of the protests has been intense, focussing on violence, anti-American statements and on security measures taken at the embassies. There appears to have been less coverage of protests by people in Muslim countries, who were condemning the attacks.

According to the Libyan Herald, last week there were “growing protests” in Tripoli and Benghazi to condemn the violence that killed Stevens and others. The same is true in Yemen, according to Hakim Almasmari, publisher and chief editor of the Yemen Post. He told us that while “hundreds” had participated in the demonstrations that turned violent in Sanaa last Thursday (an event that reportedly left four protestors dead), many more demonstrated against those attacks the next day.

Journalists told IPI that during Friday prayers near the capital’s change square, leaders spoke out against the use of violence. The message they are sending, according to Almasmari, is: “Yes, the film was bad, but the embassy should not have been attacked.”

Let’s not let the harmful acts of a few overshadow the rest” Sri Lankan Muslims shout slogans against U.S President Barack Obama at a protest in Colombo September 24, 2012. Hundreds of Muslims protested against an anti-Islam film made in the U.S. that mocks the Prophet Mohammad. REUTERS/Stringer

Many in the Arabic media have reportedly condemned the film, but also the violence, according to media reviews by the BBC and CNN. But, at the same time, there is a widespread belief in the region that such a film could never be made without official sanction, and that the authorities can and should take action to ban such offensive portrayals.

Though much of this belief clearly stems from personal conviction, it also illustrates a misunderstanding about the role of free expression in Western societies, where even offensive speech is protected. This misunderstanding could be corrected by strengthening the news media so that citizens have access to broader array of ideas and perspectives. There is a universal tendency for people to believe stereotypes, and only a diverse and critical media can help challenge the misunderstandings or even misinformation on which such stereotypes are based.

That’s why media freedom and independence are more important than ever. And why new opportunities for building and sustaining independent media around the world must be a priority: so that people who promote hatred and violence can be countered not with more violence, but through discussion and debate in the national and international press.

In Egypt, television journalist Shahira Amin told us: “The media have been low key and calling for those responsible to be held to account. They want the U.S. to take action. I think a lot of people don’t understand the free expression, and they’re asking the U.S., thinking the U.S. can do more to crack down on this kind of behaviour.”

She added: “[The media] have also been calling for restraint, and there’s a lot of condemnation about what’s happened in Libya. For the first time, I feel like people are condemning this kind of behaviour and are saying it’s unjustifiable, and I’ve read several columns saying the reaction is a bigger insult to Islam [than the movie].”

Amin explained that it was extremist football fans and Salafists who were primarily responsible for last Tuesday’s attack on the embassy. She said that most demonstrators are “venting” their “anger at unmet expectations because of the security lapse, the unemployment, the high prices.” According to Amin, the current demonstrations are just the latest show of anger against the United States that dates back to the era of former president Hosni Mubarak.

The Yemen media, Almasmari said, “are talking about condemning the movie and ensuring people understand the limits of [that condemnation]. It’s a more wise way; they’re saying you have no right to attack these embassies.” He also voiced his hope that “if Muslims are attacked by being called terrorists,” that people in the West would condemn that.

“I think the media should play a neutral role and not take sides. That’s the kind of environment we’d [also] like to see in the West, where people understand what’s right and what’s wrong and condemn the mistakes and not generalize it into a religious issue,” Almasmari said.

As the protests against the U.S. (and more recently against the British and German embassies in Sudan,and with France closing embassies in the wake of the publication of new satiric cartoons) grow, the role of media grows ever more important. Social media provide a way for people around the world to share instant updates and express a broad range of personal views. But only “traditional” news media have the mandate and ability to put the film, the protests and the response to those protests into their political and cultural contexts.

It should be repeatedly underscored that those who made “Innocence of Muslims” represent the feelings of very few. It should also be highlighted that, in the United States, even forms of hate speech are protected under the First Amendment, and there is precious little that the government can do to stop its distribution or punish its creators, as revolting as this little production may be.

Western media can also better explain the reaction in the Arab world by, distinguishing between who is calling for demonstrations, and who is hoping for (or involved in) violent attacks and looting. There is more to these protests than an extreme reaction to a amateurish film made by a bunch of marginal, professional haters. There are long-held resentments toward the United States that are resurfacing (and can be exploited by the self-serving) and there are vastly different understandings of what kinds of speech should be restricted. For example, the New York Times reported on Sunday that the book The Da Vinci Code was banned by several Middle Eastern countries because it was considered an affront to Christianity and that, for example, Egypt forbids “insulting any of the three Abrahamic religions.” The reporter also notes that in Egypt, there is a “widespread belief” that Holocaust denial is illegal in the United States, which it is not.

This is the type of thing American audiences should know in order to better understand the protests in Egypt, and it demonstrates the kind of misinformation that the media should seek to address.

It’s a complicated world. At times like these, it is more important than ever that the media be free to report on the truth, and that they exercise the judgment to do so in a calm and clear-eyed way. Let us not let the harmful acts of a few – the hateful film, the vicious attacks – overwhelm the ability of people to be properly informed by the only institutions with a clear mandate to do so: the independent news media.

  • This editorial is a joint statement from the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) and the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).
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