Cartoon Fallout Still Radioactive

Flemming Rose, culture editor of the Danish weekly Jyllands-Posten, looks like a shy man.

He’s soft spoken and wears large glasses. He gives the impression of being careful and prudent. However, when Rose published the infamous Mohammed cartoons that enraged the Islamic world, he shook off all appearances of a reserved and discreet journalist.

Why did Rose publish the inflammatory cartoons? He said he wanted to stir a debate on issues related to Islam and Denmark’s 200,000 Muslim residents. In reality, the caricatures provoked everything but civil debate. They rallied mobs of Muslims around the world to hysterical levels of hate and utter madness. Protesters called for the death of Rose, the cartoonist, Jews and Christians.

All of this has taken a toll on Rose’s nerves, especially being on the hit list of millions of Muslims. He’s now on leave from work in an undisclosed location. Yet in spite of the mayhem the cartoons caused, they did open a debate that goes well beyond Denmark. This debate challenges the international media to answer this fundamental question: What are ethical and moral principles that should define the democratic ideal of free speech? The heart of the question at hand, in my judgment, stems from the common understanding of free speech in today’s democratic culture.

Free speech, for the international media, means free expression without any censorship. The international press holds this principle as sacred. Rose certainly lived by this principle. When Muslim leaders demanded an apology from Rose and his newspaper, at the beginning of the crisis over the cartoons, the paper refused to apologize.


They simply felt they had nothing to apologize for. To make matters worst, Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen of Demark refused to meet with ambassadors from 11 Muslim countries that wanted to talk about the objectionable cartoons. This sent the wrong message, a message that says “We don’t care.” In response to Rasmussen’s indifference, Muslim leaders in Demark took their case to their brother Muslims in the Middle East where they hoped someone would listen.

Someone did listen. In fact, millions of Muslims listened to their story. What happened after that is history. Was Rose’s intransigent position on free speech, even offensive speech, justifiable?

The international media thinks so. For instance, the Telegraph, a British newspaper, came to the aid of Rose and his publication by stating that the press enjoys “the right to offend.” Die Zeit, a German newspaper, republished one of the offensive cartoons. They justified the move by saying, “It was the right thing to do.”

Media outlets in Norway, France and Spain republished the Mohammed caricatures to make a point: We, the press, have the right to express whatever we want in a democratic society.

How does the Church response to this assertion? On the one hand, the Church defends everyone’s right to free speech and access to information as essential to the common good of society. Free speech and free access to information provided by the media offers an invaluable way to know the truth of a given situation.

Knowledge of truth permits responsible people to make informed judgments and decisions. A well-informed citizenry gives rise to a mature democracy, which regards truth ­— as the foundation of the democratic process and not just the principle of general consensus.

On the other hand, the Church understands and affirms, in light of faith and reason, that the right to free speech and information isn’t a sovereign and absolute value as the international media so devoutly profess.

The moral law sets limits on free speech and free access to information. More precisely, the virtues of justice and charity govern the exercise of free speech and free access to information. These virtues categorically deny any alleged right to offend or insult. To mock or insult the good name or reputation of any person constitutes a serious injustice.

An injustice of this type becomes particularly grave when it attacks religious figures. To ridicule personalities such as Mohammed, Buddha, Moses or Jesus entails offending deeply the sensitivity of the faith of their adherents.

From a moral standpoint, the information that comes from the media should serve the common good of society. Whenever the public good is at stake, the media should use discretion and careful judgment in preparing and reporting news. The moral law of charity and justice obliges the media to exercise respect, sincerity, honesty and truthfulness in reporting facts. The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes this idea: “By the very nature of their profession, journalists have an obligation to serve the truth and not offend against charity in disseminating information. They should strive to respect, with equal care, the nature of the facts and the limits of critical judgment concerning individuals. They should not stoop to defamation” (No. 2497).

The Catechism makes a fair point. But what should Christians do when the media ignores, as it often does, the moral law that should rightly govern the free press?

For one, we should not resort to violence but fight injustice within the rule of law. We can’t gun down journalists or walk into a newsroom and blow ourselves up in the name of Jesus.

But we can effectively boycott media outlets that practice yellow journalism. The media may turn a blind eye to ethics but not sagging profits. Holding the press accountable to the moral law will not hurt democracy but bring it to perfection.

Legionary Father Andrew

McNair is a theology professor

 at Mater Ecclesiae  College

in Greenville, Rhode Island.