Prophet Muhammad’s cartoon Freedom of expression or reckless provocation

Written by: Dr Iqtidar Cheema 

Last week, the French sarcastic mag Charlie Hebdo has republished the same cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Islam that outraged the Muslim world and provoked a deadly attack on the magazine in 2015. The magazine republished the cartoons as the trial of 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks commenced in France. Many in the west see this as Freedom of Expression. But for Muslims and many sensible non-Muslims this is an act of reckless provocation. 

The horrific French attacks in 2015 claimed 17 lives have prompted a debate on Freedom of Expression. When French President Emmanuel Macron was asked to comment on the recent controversial move by the magazine , he replied that it was not his place to pass judgement on this decision “because in France there is freedom of press.”   In 2015, the leading UK newspapers  ‘the Telegraph’ and Independent reported, almost half of France opposes the publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), and even more say there should be limitations on free speech.

The core issue is now a debate of two opposed ideas of freedom of expression. One, put forward by Charlie Hebdo and its supporters, is that what occurred was simply an exercise of a right of freedom of expression. The other, as articulated by the Muslims and other opponents of the publication of the cartoons, is that there are limits to freedom of expression, and that one of these is the defamation of religion and through that the insulting of the community of people who believes that Religion. The major issue, then, is the question whether there are limits to freedom of expression: is there anything that cannot be said, or circumstances under which things cannot be said? Following from this there is a cluster of other questions. If freedom of expression does have limits, just how can these limits be defined? Is the giving of offence one of the possible limits to freedom of expression? How can we identify the boundaries of what might legitimately be considered offensive? 

It is universally acknowledged that the right to freedom of expression is a foundational human right of the greatest importance. The supporters of Charlie Hebdo are often citing Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  (UDHR) adopted by United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris. The article 19 states, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’

Beyond doubt the Article 19 is the most widely accepted formulation of the right of free expression but the same Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains article 29 (2) which clearly states, ‘In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society’.

It is clear from the above that freedom of expression is not only important in it, but also plays a vital role in the protection of others’ rights. However, to what extent can freedom of expression be protected? How it should be exercised? The answer can be found in the European Parliament resolution B6-0136,0138, 0139 and 0141/2006, of 16 February 2006 on the right to freedom of expression:

The European Parliament, defends freedom of expression as a fundamental value of the EU; believes that  freedom of expression must be exercised within the limits of the law and should coexist with personal responsibility and be based on respect for other’s rights and sensibilities; acknowledges that balancing these concerns necessitates ongoing debate in a democracy.’

Article 23 of the Guidelines of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on Protecting Freedom of Expression and Information in times of crisis could be a perfect reference;

‘Media professionals need to adhere, especially in times of crisis, to the highest professional and ethical standards, having regard to their special responsibility in crisis situations to make available to the public timely, factual, accurate and comprehensive information while being attentive to the rights of other people, their special sensitivities and their possible feeling of uncertainty and fear’.

One important example of the limitations on Freedom of expression is clearly mentioned in European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR for instance takes the wording of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights almost intact into its Article 10, but adds important further statements specifying a number of these limits. It clearly mentions in its section 10, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence’.

In the light of the above, I leave it to my readers and French authorities to determine whether ‘Charlie Hebdo’ has complied with these guidelines or not? and if the answer is ‘no’ then every Government should introduce the legislation to recognize that mocking the sacred texts of any religion or Prophets of any religion should be considered as mocking the religion and its followers and should be treated as ‘hate crime’. 

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