On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Press freedom mustn’t be abused

In Malaysia, the editor of a newspaper, the Sarawak
Tribune, resigned after it reprinted the offensive caricatures in its Saturday
issue. Attributing that as due to an oversight, he wrote an official apology
and took full responsibility for the decision.

It is reported that a show-cause letter has been issued to the newspaper asking
it to explain why action should not be taken against its permit holders.

Let's be frank here – there has never been absolute press freedom anywhere.
Greater press freedom, perhaps, in the United States and Europe, but never
absolute freedom.

Even in countries where the press has been able to operate without legal and
political constraints, media companies operate like any business concern with
commercial interests; and in times of war, even patriotic interests.

There are libel laws that restrain the press from printing many things, and in
many places there are now laws to protect the privacy of the people – these
have hindered the work of the media.

But the point here is the media also need to have common sense. Newspapers, in
whatever language, are no longer being read by one community as we become more
multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-racial.

The racial demography of many European countries has changed tremendously, with
an increasing Muslim population.

To run such caricatures, which are blasphemous in nature, without considering
the feelings of Muslims, who are probably the readers of these newspapers, is
just plain stupid. Arrogant, one may also add.

Putting horns on religious figures to make them to look demonic or depicting
religious figures as terrorists is hard for any Muslim to accept. But that was
what these naive European newspapers had done.

In plural societies, like in Malaysia, we have long accepted the fact that
compromise is about sacrificing many rights and freedoms to enable everyone to
live together in harmony. No one community can have its own way all the

As the saying goes, you don't have to win and should not cause others to lose
badly or be hurt. Being considerate and moderate costs nothing, these are
strengths and not weaknesses.

The question now for these European newspapers would be whether it has been
worth it: Danish embassies have been attacked, Danish goods boycotted, which
would only hurt their fellow countrymen. And, worse, they have played into the
hands of fanatical Muslims.

Moderate Muslims have found themselves pushed into a corner because of the
stupidity of these editors, while the hardliners have gained a more popular
position, leading demonstrations and setting buildings on fire.

Have these editors spared a thought for the Western travellers in predominantly
Muslim countries now? They may just become targets of foolish fanatics simply
because they are Danes or just whites.

The unhappiness has now grown into a diplomatic row, with Libya and Saudi
Arabia reportedly recalling their ambassadors from Copenhagen, while in Saudi
Arabia, an angry mob beat up two workers of the Danish-owned Arla Foods.

Moderate Islamic leaders in some West Asian countries have a tough time
explaining to the West that not all Muslim countries ban the Bible, chop off
hands of criminals or force their women to be veiled. A trip to Dubai, Beirut
and Amman always surprises many.

The action of the European newspapers has further worsened the perceived
dichotomy between the West and Islam. They have not helped press freedom but
have abused it.

They are no different from some political newspapers, whether in Asia or West
Asia, with their continuous anti-Semitic stance, negative remarks against
Christianity or equating anything Jewish with Zionism.

Thanks to their foolishness, the European media have given the hardliners a
licence to propagate hates and threats against the West.

Never mess around with religion. To incite and create conflicts in the name of
press freedom is hard to fathom. Self-censorship is not always a dirty word in
the press if it helps to maintain peace.