21/09/2012 | Freedom of expression, as any other freedom, comes with a slice of responsibility. The way a free society makes use of its freedom is a measure of its maturity. The US and French governments this week described as irresponsible the decision by a small but traditional satirical publication based in Paris, Charlie Hebdo, to publish a series of caricatures disparaging Prophet Muhammad. In full talking point sync, the State Department and the French Foreign Ministry defended the “right” of the publishers to print whatever they wanted but questioned, respectively, the “judgment” and the “sensibility” to do it.
Read the subtext: freedom is contextual.
The context this time is one in which an amateur movie trailer mocking the Muslim creed goes viral and triggers protests against US interests across the world, ultimately leading to the murder to the US Ambassador to Libya on September 11. The US government goes on a damage control PR offensive and plans the release a series of television ads in Pakistan, where violence continued this week, criticizing the film and explaining the government’s position. The French government decides to shut down Embassies, cultural centres and schools in some 20 countries where protests were anticipated.
In France, the press freedom debate was split (almost) in half. A front-page editorial by the centre-right daily Le Figaro said that publishing the cartoons was “easy as it is irresponsible” and “a silly provocation.” The centre-left Le Monde said that freedom of thought and expression was “a fundamental and even existential norm” for the French Republic and that “no superior concern” would curtail it. And it adds that “ever since Voltaire” religions are subjected to criticism and ridicule.
Voltaire, we know, did not have a Twitter account. Western values are not the only ones around anymore.
This is the new international arena, where foreign policy and global communications are one and the same. The dilemma does also have local angles to it. A recent example was the flaring debate here over the cover of the weekly magazine Noticias two weeks ago featuring a lecherous drawing of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner based on a musical clip that also went viral on YouTube to present a story on the erotic angle of power. “Cristina’s pleasure,” read the headline.
Freedom of expression is a given in Argentina. So is freedom of the press, which is more so since Congress decriminalized libel in 2009. Until then, authorities had used an article in the Criminal Code to put pressure on journalists, before and after publication. The reform also introduced “actual malice” into Argentine legislation, meaning a civil court weighing damages over allegations of libel has to prove the defendant has an intention to cause the damage with the information published.
As it happens, with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. The Noticias cover was slammed from all sides (former Herald editor Robert Cox called it “indecent journalism” on his last Sunday column here). The Senate passed a declaration expressing its “dislike.” The Senate declaration reads that the lustful image of the President “offends the dignity of women and the office of the Presidency.” The Senate added, “Argentina enjoys the most absolute freedom of expression. Some hide behind that liberty to abuse and insult.”
It is the context, again. The Noticias cover did not generate any riots but turned its back on recent Argentina. Gender violence has climbed to the public agenda in recent years and is gaining greater public visibility. Congress passed legislation in 2010 designed to counter gender violence and included “media violence” as one of the six types of abuse women can suffer. “Media violence,” as described by the law, is the result of the publication of “stereotyped messages or images which promotes directly or indirectly the exploitation of women or injury, defame, discriminate, humiliate or attacks the dignity of women.”
The week after, Noticias printed an empty white cover reading, “This is the cover the government would want.” In an editorial, Noticias said the outrage showed Argentina was still not mature enough, “When we grow up, we Argentines will no longer think about censorship every time we exercise our freedom of expression.”
There are many different ways of growing up.
Government officials are feeding great expectations regarding December 7. That day, according to the Supreme Court, a court injunction that has so far saved Grupo Clarín from downsizing to fit new anti-trust rules expires. The President and the ministers are trumpeting that date as D-day for freedom of expression, as the government sees it. Overshooting expectations has in the past played against the government’s Broadcast Media Act, passed by Congress three years ago and still struggling to turn words of goodwill into reality. Revamping Argentina’s media landscape, which was over-concentrated and still is, would take years of policy consistency. This week’s presidential appointment of Martín Sabbatella as the new head of the AFSCA federal broadcasting commission has given the body in charge of enforcing the law a political boost. Whether that’s good or bad news, only time will tell.