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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?
The Limits to Free Speech:

The public interest test is one way to look at the limitation imposed on free speech. Another way is the responsible journalism test. According to Lord Nicholls in Bonnick v Morris & Ors [2002] UKPC 31 at paragraph 23:

"Responsible journalism is the point at which a fair balance is held between freedom of expression on matters of public concern and the reputation of individuals. Maintenance of this standard is in the public interest and in the interest of those whose reputations are involved. It can be regarded as the price journalists pay in return for the privilege. If they are to have the benefit of the privilege, journalists must exercise due professional skill and care.”

There are several cases under the European system that are based on media irresponsibility. Take the case of Reynolds v Sunday Times Newspaper; a case in which the House of Lords extended the defense a qualified privilege to investigative journalism. Curiously however, Sunday Times Newspaper failed to gain from this defense because the paper was seen to be irresponsible. Its allegation against the ex-Irish Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, was not carefully researched and presented.

We see the same trend of irresponsibility in the case of George Galloway v Daily Telegraph [2004] EWHC 2786 (QB); and also in Naomi Campbell v. Daily Mirror, which involved the publication of intrusive pictures of the model. In Von Hanover v. Germany, (2005) 40 EHRR, the ECHR had to strike a balance between Articles 8 and 10 of ECHR.
Like the case of Naomi Campbell discussed above, this case involved the publication of pictures of Princess Caroline Von Hanover in different German newspapers.

The photographs in question represented the Princess in her day-to day life and they were taken without her authorization. German Courts held that there was no breach of the Princess’s privacy because of her status as a "figure of contemporary society par excellence."

When the case came before the ECHR, the European Court performed a balancing act between freedom of expression and right to privacy. The court held that, although Princess Caroline Van Hanover was a well known public person, she did not exercise any official function. The Court therefore decided that the general public did not have a legitimate interest in knowing about the Princess’ private life, even if she appeared in public places and was likely to be recognized by the public. The court therefore, considered that there was a breach of Article 8 in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court stated clearly that a fundamental distinction had to be drawn between the ‘watchdog’ function of the press in reporting facts capable of contributing to a debate in a democratic society - such as those relating to politicians in the exercise of their functions - and reporting the details of the private life of an individual who did not exercise official functions.

From the foregoing, there are several reasons to say that the Danish Cartoons are irresponsible and lack any public interest cause. Some of these reasons are as follows:

• The cartoons lost sight of the fact that free speech stops where other people’s rights start. Religion is also a human right, and free speech does not extend to denigrating other people’s religion and encouraging discriminatory attitudes.
• The cartoons were not carefully explained and were left open for several interpretations, especially as they are also full of innuendoes.
• There is scarcely any public interest cause for those cartoons. They appear to be vindictive and cruel.
• They targeted a selective group of people and there is no clear evidence that the cartoonist made any effort to understand Islamic teachings and the place of Prophet Muhammad in Islam.
• The cartoons appear to be judgmental.
• The consequential damages it has wrecked on fledging global peace and unity clearly testify to its irrationality and irresponsibility.


The resort to self help by aggrieved Muslims does not seem to be the best way out. Two wrongs do not make a right. It would have been neater to go through the European Court of Human Rights under freedom of religion and discrimination grounds. A pronouncement from this court will be of a monumental precedence and will have a more lasting effect than a resort to arson, murder and destruction, which risks individual criminal responsibility. Provocation, even when established is not a defense for murder, for instance. It can, at best, reduce murder to manslaughter.

The Media, it is important to also observe, seems to be at the verge of self destruction. Apart from the controversy over these cartoons, there is a dangerous trend of irresponsibility that strikes at the heart of this noble profession. Journalists and media houses seem quick to rush to publication without verifying facts. News values seem to have been clouded by quest for narrow pecuniary success.


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Wilfred Mamah

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