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Prophet Muhammad Cartoons: Media Freedom or Cruelty? Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Wilfred Mamah, United Kingdom Feb 23, 2006
Human Rights   Opinions


Prophet Muhammad Cartoons: Media Freedom or Cruelty?
It is not surprising therefore, that the most difficult challenge before journalists and media institutions today is how to walk the thin line between freedom and constraint. Journalistic methods of obtaining information, especially as they impinge on individuals’ governments’ and corporations’ rights to privacy and confidence, have come under very strict scrutiny. The use of subterfuge and harassment in obtaining information, often justified by the media as being in the public interest, is another source of concern and interest; so also is the recent resort to cynicism and vindictive cartoons that practically serve no public interest ends.

If journalism is committed to democratic accountability, then the question that needs to be asked is whether the public benefits as a result of investigative reports that have brought down established institutions of government and business entities. Whose interest do journalists serve by publishing a given story? Does the press fulfill its social responsibility in revealing wrongdoing? Does the public gain anything from cartoons that ridicule people’s religion? Whose interests are being affected? Whose rights are being invaded? Is the issue at stake a matter of public interest, as the media often claims? Or, are people’s privacies, religious preferences, government and corporations’ confidences being invaded when no public interest is at stake? What indeed is public interest and how is it to be distinguished from media’s private pecuniary interests in the face of the growing “commodification” of the news?

Several definitions of public interest have been offered. One definition of the term is that public interest is simply whatever the public is interested in knowing. Another definition is that public interest is whatever is in the interests (to the benefit) of the public to know, or what the public has a right to know. Facts that are in the public interest are reported as part of democratic accountability. To complicate matters further, it is argued that there exist instances, where it might be agreed that something is of public importance or interest, but that it is better for society not to reveal material; in case, for example, panic ensues and undermines public safety.

It is arguable that “public interest” is not a matter susceptible to a straightforward definition or generic categorization. Legislation shies away from defining it. It has been suggested that the main reason for this is that ‘public interest’ is a highly political category that changes with time. ‘Public interest’, it has been observed, suffers the same fate as claiming that something is in the ‘national interest’. Both terms confuse as much as they clarify. Adopting a generic definition of public interest would, therefore, be confusing and grossly limiting. However, the UK’s court of Appeal, Civil Division, per Stephenson, O’Connor and Griffiths LJJ, has offered an invaluable guide, which journalists and media organizations must take very seriously.

The case is Lion Laboratories v. Evans [1984 2 All ER, 417]. In this case the plaintiff company sought and obtained an injunction to restrain its former employees and a national newspaper, “Daily Express” from publishing internal documents of the company, which were obtained through a breach of confidence.

Under the common law, three ingredients are needed to establish a breach of confidence. First, the information must be of a confidential nature. Secondly, the information must have been communicated in circumstances importing an obligation of confidence. The final requirement is the unauthorized use of the information to the detriment of the claimant.

In this case, the documents in question were related to the company’s manufactured instruments used in measuring the level of intoxication by alcohol under the Road Traffic Act. They were clearly marked confidential, and ex-employees came in contact with the documents by way of being employed by the company and having signed a contract of employment, committing to protect the company’s confidence.

The defendants sought to discharge the injunction, on the strength that it was a breach of their right to freedom of expression in matters of public interest. But the judge refused on the reasoning that there was a strong prima-facie case that the defendants had committed an “inexcusable breach of confidentiality.”

The defendants appealed this decision before the Court of Appeal. At the Court of Appeal, a distinction was drawn between what is in the public interest and what interests the public. According to their Lordships;

“There is a wide difference between what is interesting to the public and what is in the public interest to make known. The public are interested in many private matters which are no real concern of theirs and which the public have no pressing need to know.”

That statement is monumental and could be of tremendous aid in testing when freedom of expression derails. We can therefore ask: of what public relevance is a cartoon that sought to depict Prophet Muhammad, carrying bombs? How will that depiction affect collective growth and promote integration, peace and unity in our diametrically changing world?


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Wilfred Mamah

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