The unresolved debate on freedom of expression was reignited when Islamic militants killed 14 staffers of French magazine Charlie Hebdo last January, ostensibly for the cartoons that offended Muslim sentiments. Earlier this year, two secular bloggers were hacked to death in Bangladesh. In other countries such as Russia and Iran, writers and journalists languish in prisons on similar charges. The intersection of faith, politics, and history has influenced the global debates on the “limits” to freedom. In June, the Center for International Media Assistance, in collaboration with Media Diversity Institute, held a panel discussion on the limitations on the state of media in multicultural societies. An all-women panel, a rarity in itself, included Razia Iqbal (BBC), Courtney C. Radsch (CPJ), Milica Pesic (MDI), and a well-known academic Verica Rupar.
Negotiating freedom of expression and respect for diversity is a delicate balancing act. The current crisis – of “Western” values versus Islamic teachings – is far beyond the problem of media ethics. Razia Iqbal at CIMA raised crucial questions about the social responsibility of journalists. For instance, is freedom of expression sacred, or is it a subjective construct located in the context of every country? The responses were spirited. Some felt that freedom of expression was linked to other rights such as privacy; and therefore it ought to be viewed in a subjective context. Panelists agreed that freedom of expression was a universal right, but that under certain circumstances, limitations were understandable. Journalists have to act in public interest, as they give voice to and act as public watchdogs on behalf of society. Therefore, media persons have to exercise discretion in deciding what to print or broadcast. That is at the core of the idea of “social responsibility.”
Should journalists practice self-censorship and stay away from certain issues in multicultural societies? One panelist noted that journalism does not exist outside the boundaries of a given society; thus, it should reflect the inherent multiculturalism of a particular context. But this leads to self-censorship. The case of Egypt, among others, is instructive, as unprecedented self-censorship is taking place there due to the pressures exerted by the state and lack of legal protection available to journalists. Multiculturalism entails respect for free speech and the availability of public space to enable diverse groups to air their views. Violence changes this dynamic—perhaps for good. This is why Charlie Hebdo’s editor has announced that the magazine will no longer publish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad.