The press and blasphemy in India

By K. M. Joshy


 [Full Text]




The publication of cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jylland-Posten led to outrage, boycott calls and violence in many countries. People were killed, newspapers were closed and editors sacked. The controversy has been narrated as a clash between two civilizations. It has also been described as an encounter between freedom of expression and religious fundamentalism. While many cited the publication of the cartoon as an example of irresponsible journalism, another section stood by the Danish newspaper, arguing for the unlimited freedom for the press.


Beyond the political and religious controversies, the publication of the cartoons has compelled media practitioners and theoreticians to ponder over the ethical dimensions of the event. The commissioning of the cartoons by the Danish newspaper and the subsequent reproduction of the same by the European media has raised many ethical questions regarding freedom of the press and social responsibility of the media. While governments have started contemplating more regulations on the media in the name of communal harmony and national integration, media organizations have once again started redefining ethical boundaries in day-to-day journalism in the era of new technology.




The cartoon controversy was the third modern transnational incident of blasphemy sparking pan-Islamic outrage preceded by the Salman Rushdhie episode and the protest movement of 1969 following an attempted attack on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by an Australian arsonist. All three incidents were initially local in nature and then developed into global news event with different meanings and interpretations for different countries and civilizations.


The agitation against the cartoons began three months after their publication by the Jyllands-Posten. The anger deepened in the first week of February after the reproduction of the cartoons in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. Muslims mounted vigorous protests and demonstrations throughout the world accusing western media for hurting their religious sentiments. Sixteen people were killed in Nigeria. Syria and Saudi Arabia withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark in protest and Libya closed its embassy in Copenhagen. Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassador of Austria, which holds the EU Presidency, to protest.




India has also witnessed protests in different parts of the country including Delhi and Mumbai. Four persons were killed in Luknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh. Political parties have expressed solidarity with the minority Muslim community. The state elections for various legislative assemblies in April-March 2006 compelled political parties to organize demonstrations against western media accusing it of anti-Islamic propaganda. Minority vote bank politics touched a low when a minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh Haji Yaqoob Qureshi announced a reward of Rs. 51 crore for beheading the Danish cartoonist who drew the offensive caricatures of the Prophet.


The Government of India expressed deep concern over the controversy and suggested to the Danish government that it seek an assurance from the newspaper that it would not publish such cartoons in future. Anticipating a communal clash, the Prime Minister of India came out with a statement, saying (Mujataba S.Ali, 2006 Sept.29).


It is incumbent on all of us to be sensitive to the beliefs and sentiments of other and avoid all actions that cause hurt to them [Muslim Community]. India’s commitment to religious harmony and tolerance is unshakable and actions that cause hurt to the sentiments of any part of our people are not acceptable.


Moreover, the Indian Government diplomatically dissuaded the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen from visiting India around the end of March 2006, saying the controversy surrounding the cartoons of the Prophet would overshadow the visit. Rasmussen’s visit was planned by both countries well before the controversy over the cartoon erupted.




Accepting the Government’s call for restraint and upholding the principle of self-censorship, no publication except a Hindi Magazine, Shabdarth, reproduced the cartoons. Taking note of the impending danger, the editor of Shabdarth, Alok Kumar, was arrested. He had to pay Rs.50000 and provide a personal surety before he was released on bail after ten days. Unlike the European media, most of the newspapers criticized the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten for publishing the controversial cartoons. The national newspaper in English, The Hindu, described the development as a ‘needless and nasty controversy’. In its editorial on 9th February 2006, The Hindu says,


At a time when Muslims across the world feel deeply offended by prejudiced stereotypes of Islam post-9/11, the cartoons have just been insensitive, they have been downright provocative. … the cartoons promote hate by suggesting that Islam preaches violence and terrorism. While Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that originally published the cartoons, responded with a quick apology, the other European newspapers, notably in France, decided to republish the cartoons on the ground that they were defending freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is supremely important. But surely it does not require its champions crassly to cause offence to the faith and beliefs of an identifiable group.


The Hindu also criticized the Muslim community for its violent reactions to the publication of the cartoons. In the same editorial (2006 Feb.9) it says,


On the other side, the violent reactions in the Muslim world, against all manner of targets, including the Dutch embassy in Lebanon, have been uncalled for. From Europe to West Asia to South Asia and South-East Asia, the steady ramping up of the protests smacks of orchestration by elements in countries with Muslim populations that are out to squeeze political mileage out of the situation. Extremism feeds extremism, and anti-cartoon protesters have played right back in to the hands of the Islamophobes.


The Times of India, the largest circulated daily in India, also deplored the ‘irresponsible’ editorial decision of Jyllands-Posten. Like the Hindu, the Times of India has also taken a balanced approach by condemning the violence. Its editorial says,


The right to freedom of expression is not an absolute right. All rights, legal and moral, come with responsibilities that contextualise them. A right can qualify to be so only if it is exercised with responsibility, to the individual and society. The right to freedom of expression can be no exception. The current controversy over cartoons featuring Prophet Mohammed misses this point. Certainly, that does not justify the violent response to the insensitive depiction of Islam.


Milligazette, a newspaper owned by the Muslim community has carried an analysis expressing displeasure on the publication of the cartoon. The analysis written by Imam Zaid Shakir (2006) of Zaytuna Institute says,


The current crisis shows the extent we Muslims are vulnerable to media manipulation, superficial shows of piety, and counterproductive one-upmanship militancy. If we start with the issue of media manipulation, it is clear that Western and Eastern media outlets played a large role in stirring up Muslim, and now Western sentiments.


The analysis also shed light on the stand taken by the moderate Muslims as Imam Zaid Shakir (2006) says,


As the crisis that has emerged in the aftermath of the publication of the infamous cartoons that claim to depict the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of God upon him, escalates, we would do well by stepping back and attempting to analyze the situation as dispassionately as possible. By doing so, as Muslims, we can hopefully formulate a more productive and meaningful response, and avoid being exploited by either side in the ongoing conflict.


The Organiser, the organ of the Rastriya Swayamsewak Samgh (R.S.S) a Hindu nationalist organisation, took a cautious approach while dealing with the cartoon controversy. R.S.S is known for its opposition to the minority community. The Organiser published an analysis by N.Kunju (2006), which says,


If the Danish cartoonist made a caricature of Prophet Mohammed and used it as a character of his cartoon, it is condemnable, not because he was breaking an Islamic tenet; as a non-Muslim, he is not bound by Muslim rules. His cartoons were condemnable because he was wounding the religious sentiment of Muslims by drawing the picture of their Prophet in a vulgar way.


Indian media by and large disagree with Jyllands-Posten with regard to the publication of the cartoon. They also denounced the violent protest by a section of the Muslim community in different parts of the world. Even, media organizations which have link with religions held the view that press freedom is not absolute when it comes to national integration and communal harmony. Some of the newspapers tried to expose the political parties which extend support to the protesters to take political mileage out of the controversy. For example, The Economic Times, the largest circulated financial newspaper, published a photograph showing politicians participating in protest marches organized by extremist Muslim outfits. In short, the Indian media upheld the ‘norms for the journalistic conduct’ prescribed by the Press Council of India which (Section 20:II) says,


Journalists and columnists owe a very special responsibility to their country in promoting communal peace and amity. Their writings are not a mere reflection of their own feelings but help to a large extent in moulding the feelings and sentiments of the society at large. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that they use their pen with circumspection and restrain.


Even though the Press Council of India suggests that media organizations impose self-censorship when it comes to national integration and communal harmony there is no pre-control on media content by the Government or any other agency. Therefore, it was possible for the Indian media to reproduce the cartoon especially when it became a global news event. The reproduction of the cartoon would have helped them explain the controversy in a better way to their audience. Sensationalizing the issue by publishing the cartoons would have helped them to increase their reach. There is no doubt that the audience wanted to see the cartoons since it was the centre of the controversy.


Even though there is no blasphemy law in India, the publications in the country would not normally commission cartoons of religious figures, as it is a very sensitive subject. The Constitution of India as well as social ethics directs respect for the sentiments of the minorities. Newspapers in India would not even contemplate doing something that the Jyllands-Posten did. This does not mean that the media does not criticize religion. They often report on outdated customs as well as the rigid stance of different religions on various issues. Newspapers recently published reports on the controversy surrounding the Da Vinci Code and Gospel of Judas. Reports appeared in the media when well known painter M.F.Husain portrayed the Hindu goddess Saraswathi in the nude.




Adherence to ethical norms and self-restraint shown by the Indian media on the cartoon controversy does not mean they are controlled or regulated by an external agency. The media enjoys substantial freedom in the country; the exceptions being in contempt of court, defamation and privilege of the Parliament and state legislatures. The Constitution of India (Article 19 (a)) provides freedom of speech and expression, which gives freedom to the media. Expect during the Emergency in 1971, when censorship was imposed by the then government, the press in India is free to carry out their constitutional and social obligation. The freedom enjoyed by the media can be understood from what Jawaharlal Nehru (Pylee M.V, 2003 Nove.25). said: “I would rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom, than a suppressed or regulated Press.” Another former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi reaffirms importance of the press freedom later. He says (Hima Lawrence), “Freedom of the press is an article of faith with us, sanctified by our constitution, validated by four decades of freedom and indispensable to our future as a nation.”


Even though the Indian media enjoys substantial freedom there are instances that the media organisations were attacked or harassed by the government, political parties and fanatic religious groups. Newspapers and TV channels pursuing investigative journalism are often being attacked by the affected parties including the government. There are also instances were court cases initiated to harass the media taking advantage of the provision of defamation suits provided in the constitution. Factors such as ownership, editorial policy, financial situation, and political leniency also have its own impact on journalism.


Government policies related to advertisement as well as newsprint import have also influence the freedom of the Press. Legislations such as ‘The Official Secret Act’ prevent the media from getting information on several sensitive aspects of the governance. At the same time the new legislation, The Right to Information Act, passed by the government has been seen as a revolutionary step making transparency as a guiding principle for governance. According to this law any citizen can collect information on all aspects of governance except few sensitive areas like defence from the designated information officer by submitting an application along with a nominal fee. The concerned officer will be liable for punishment if he fail to provide the information within the stipulated time stated in the act. Journalists and advocacy groups have started gathering information from the government on controversial matters by using the provisions in the new legislation. With the enactment of the ‘Right to Information Act’ many laws have become redundant including the ‘Official Secret Act’. It has been reported that the Government is contemplating to withdraw or amend the outdated laws.




Many European media including BBC reproduced the cartoons citing the high news value. A section of academicians also supported the publication of the cartoons because of their news value. Professor Jane Kirtly, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota and Director of Silha Center told the Minneapolis Star Tribune of United States (Sara Cannon, P3) that,


“it is up to the public to make a judgment on these cartoons, and the media should absolutely repudiate the suggestion that violence should lead to the suppression of free speech. ….given the high news value of the cartoons, United States papers should publish them, but not on their front pages on the editorial pages, and not with out including careful context, such as commentary from Muslim leaders."


It can be argued that the public is the ultimate judge and the journalist should not be a gatekeeper when it comes to the public right to know. The reproduction of the cartoons can also be justified by citing the users and gratification theory. But at the same time one should not forget that matters related to religion are very sensitive and it is impossible to predict the reaction of the public. The public may not be wise enough to make a choice when it comes to emotional issues. It should also be remembered that political and communal organizations often take advantage of such situations. As happened in the case of the cartoon controversy, there can be widespread violence. It can also lead to transnational conflict. There is no point in preaching freedom of the press or gratification of the audience when the world is burning. Media organisations should desist itself from becoming a pliant tool of politicians or communal elements. Paul Solvic cautions the journalists about the unpredictable risk and argues for regulation in order to avoid putting mankind in to danger. He says, (1987), “risk may be understood better when we consider two factors: how unknown the risk is and how dreaded it is”. Solvic presents these two factors on axes and suggests that ‘when a risk is both unknown and dreadful, people are much more likely to want it regulated.’


The Press Council of India directs the journalist to be vigilant and restrained when dealing with issues of communal clashes. In the aftermath of the Gujrat communal carnage the Council revised the ‘norms for journalistic conduct’ by saying (Section 20:111), “the role of media in such situations [Gujrat Carnage] is to be peacemakers and not abettors, to be troubleshooters and not trouble makers”. The Council adds (Section 20:III), “there is a greater moral responsibility on the media to do their best to build national solidarity and to recement communal harmony at all levels remembering the noble role they had played during pre-independence days.”


Considering the sensibility and freedom of faith, the Council also prohibits the portrayal of religious figures and characters in bad light. In the ‘norms for journalistic conduct’ it says (Section 22:4),


Newspapers should not publish any fictional literature distorting and portraying religious characters in an adverse light and offending the religious susceptibilities of large sections of society who hold those characters in high esteem, invested with attributes of the virtuous and lofty.


The Council also rejects the argument of ‘news value’ for the reproduction of any objectionable material. It says (Section 3:VIII), the ‘publication of defamatory news by one paper does not give licence to others to publish news/information reproducing or repeating the same.’




Journalists often face challenges with regard to ethical decision making. Upholding values and principles, journalists have the responsibility to report the truth to their audience. Gordon et al, (1996:82) says, “..truth telling is the first principle, to the where if choices must be made, truth must be given primacy over any other ethical concern.” Kant (1986), in his famous essay On the Supposed Right to lie Out of Humanity advocates the fundamental validity of telling the truth, even if there is a conflict of duties: Tell the truth whether it is convenient or inconvenient, regardless of the consequences” (Christian & Traber, 1997:95). Considering these views, it can be argued that the publication of the cartoons by the Jyllands-Posten was the true representation of the reality prevails in the world. It can also be argued that the reproduction of the controversial cartoons by other media was the true representation of the day’s event and it was the responsibility of the journalists to bring such issues before the public. At the same time it has also been argued that the publication of the truth is not advisable when there is a possibility of communal violence and social anarchy. The Press Council of India says (Section 3:II), the “truth is no defence for publishing derogatory, scurrilous and defamatory material against a private citizen where no public interest is involved.” John Calson of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (Karen S. Peterson, 2001) suggests that even ‘lies can be justified if they serve the higher public good’. Sissela Bok (1978:45) also rejects the absolutist position about truth telling and she argues that “..there are some situation where lie would be warranted, especially those were innocent lives are at risk, and where only lie can defend the danger. Therefore, the publication of the cartoons by the Jylland-Posten cannot be justified as per the notion of true representation of the reality.




While enjoying freedom, the media should also be responsible to society, nation and world at large. There is no freedom without responsibility. Press freedom imposes a corresponding responsibility upon the press, involving the acceptance and compliance with high ethical standards by editors and journalists. Freedom of the press is not absolute, unlimited and unfettered at all times and in all circumstances as this would lead to disorder and anarchy. The US Commission on Freedom and the Press also emphasize the huge responsibility of media organizations. In its report, the Commission says (1947: 87), “we insist that, morally considered, the freedom of the press is a conditional right, conditional on the honesty and responsibility of writer, broadcaster, or publisher.”


The Jyllands-Posten has been defending the publication of the cartoons and the culture editor of the newspaper in an article published in the Critique, (vol. 5, No.12) says,


I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must speak out. The Idea wasn’t to provoke gratuitously—and we certainly didn’t intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.


According to Rose, the newspaper did not intend to provoke the Muslim world but challenge the European media to abandon its self-imposed regulations. Even though, the intention of the newspaper was not to provoke the Muslim community, the ultimate result of the publication was protest and violence. The newspaper can argue that there was no protest or violence for three months and the atmosphere began to change when politicians and extremist elements started taking advantage of the situation. Media organizations have also played a role in escalating the matter further by asking comments from the Muslim leaders about the controversial cartoons. The cartoons were uploaded on the Internet making it accessible to all. The Jyllands-Posten can argue that the Muslim community was not provoked by it but by the after effects of the publication of the cartoons. But it has to be remembered the basic issue behind the protest was the publication of the cartoon by the Jyllands-Posten. It has also been alleged that the cartoons were uploaded in the Internet by the Muslim fanatics to take advantage of the situation and divided the world but that would not justify the editoral decision of the Jyllands-Posten. Even if that is true, the newspaper should be blamed for becoming an instrument of the communal elements by making dangerous editorial decisions.




Even if one has agreed with the idea of challenging the European media to push back the self-imposed limits was in good spirits, there is no ethical justification for the publication of the caricature of Prophet Mohammed. It can be argued that all sections of the Muslim community are not against the publication of the image of Prophet Mohammed. It can also be argued that the images of the Prophet Mohammed exist in different parts of the world and many occasions media published Prophets images. But these arguments do not justify the publication of the cartoons by the Jylland-Posten where the Prophet was portrayed in bad taste. Even though all cartoons published by the Jylland-Posten were not offensive some were highly objectionable.


It has been argued that non-Muslims are not bound by the Muslim laws and therefore, the Jyllands-Posten was well within its right to publish the cartoons. But the question is whether it was necessary to portray Prophet Mohammed in bad light to achieve the limited objective of criticising the self-regulation of the European media. It should be remembered that the ordinary Muslim community is not responsible for the so called self-regulation. It is only a section of the Muslim community which terrorizes the world. It is also important to note that the so called self regulation has nothing to do with Muslim community but, it is simply a decision by the media organization. Rose, argues that the self-regulation by the European media “…is a popular trick of totalitarian movements: Label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders.” If that is the case, why did Jyllands-Posten publish the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed along with its article “Do we still have press freedom?” instead of simply criticising the media. The newspaper could have written editorials against the European media. They could have published cartoons portraying the European media in bad light. It could have also criticized the Muslim community without publishing the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The newspaper has the right to disagree with the Muslim community but there is no justification in putting the blame on the Prophet. One cannot blame Jesus Christ for the wrong doings of Christians. Moreover, it has been reported that the Jylland-Posten had actually received anti-Christian cartoons but had not used them for fear of upsetting Christians. If that is true it totally rejects all justifications put forward by the Jyllands-Posten for publishing the cartoons and exposes its double standard.


It can be argued that the reason behind the self-regulation of the media is because of fear and not that of public interest as in the case of Boston Phoenix. The Boston Phoenix did not reproduce the cartoons and confessed that it is because of fear. It (2006, Feb. 10) says,


…Out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and blood-thirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy.


The stand taken by the Boston Phoenix is unjustifiable. The newspaper believes in something and behaves in a different way. It is simply a compromise and it defeats the very purpose of journalism. One must remember that newspapers world over have passed through tough situations facing tremendous challenges but survived. There are golden examples from India to Africa of suffering during their freedom struggle. It is not advisable to surrender the ethical standards due to fear or any other reason. Considering the journalistic ethics and principles, the stand taken by Jyllands-Posten as well as the Boston Phoenix is not justifiable.




The Jyllands-Posten apologized for hurting the feelings of the Muslim Community but was not ready to change the earlier stand regarding the right to publish the cartoons. Rose (2006) says, “I acknowledge that some people have been offended by the publication of the cartoons, and Jyllands-Posten has apologized for that. But we cannot apologise for our right to publish material, even offensive material. You cannot edit a newspaper if you are paralyzed by worries about every possible insult.”


When Rose says that the newspaper has the right to publish even offensive material it contradicts his earlier stand. Offensive material always provokes the affected party and there was no doubt that the controversial cartoons would be an insult to the Muslim community. The newspaper was not bothered about the outcome of the publication of the cartoons. They simply wanted to prove a point at the cost of universal peace and harmony. It not that media should not publish any offensive material but any such decision should be taken only after considering the possible fallout of that action. Any possible risk regarding the publication of any kind of offensive material should be weighed against the public interest. It is imperative on the media to asses the possible impact of the publication of any material on its readers. In this case, was the publication of the cartoons by the Jyllands-Posten in public interest? Was it prudent to put society in danger in order to achieve the limited goal of provoking the European media regarding self-regulation? The Jyllands-Posten should answer these questions.


The irresponsible and short-sighted behaviour of the press often puts society in danger and there could be irrecoverable damage. While pointing out the importance and possibilities of the modern media the US Commission on the Freedom of the Press cautions about the danger of irresponsible and unregulated media. In the report it (1947) says,


The modern press itself is a new phenomenon. Its typical unit is the great agency of mass communication. These agencies can felicitate thought and discussion. They can stifle it. They can advance the progress of civilization or they can thwart it. They can debase and vulgarize mankind. They can endanger the peace of the world; they can do so accidentally, in a fit of absence of mind. They can play up or down the news and its significance, foster and feed emotions, create complacent fictions and blind spots, misuse the great words, and uphold empty slogans. Their scope and power are increasing every day as new instruments can spread lies faster and farther than our forefathers dreamed when they enshrined the freedom of the press in the First Amendment to our constitution.


Media organizations have the primary responsibility of creating an informed citizenry in order empower society and strengthen democracy. Media should also play an active role in enhancing social and religious harmony and the upliftment of the poor and the needy. It has to fight against corruption and social injustice. At the same time media has to perform its responsibility with out challenging the harmony and peace. If it fails to protect the interest of the public or challenges the law of the land, other regulating agencies come to play including the government and the court. The Press Council of India (Norms of Journalistic Conduct, Section 23:I) says,


Newspapers shall, as matters of self-regulation, exercise due restraint and caution in presenting any news, comment or information which is likely to jeopardize, endanger or harm the paramount interests of the state and society, or the rights of individuals with respect to which reasonable restrictions may be imposed by law on the right to freedom of speech and expression under clause (2) of Article 19 of the Constitution of India.




Any controversy even if it happens in a remote village reaches all over the world due to advanced communication technology and new media. When transnational media targets a global audience, issues and controversies become a global event. Therefore, any controversy created by an irresponsible act of any media organisation can spread all over the world and in such a scenario the repercussions will be far reaching. There have been apprehensions that the cartoon controversy may pave the way for another world war.


The Internet allows someone to disseminate his/her messages to anyone he/she wants. The capacity of the Internet to target a global audience enables a messenger to spread his/her message without any regulation. Extremist organizations often take advantage of this technology and spread the hatred. Karine Barzilai-Nihon, Gad Barzilai (Cultured Technology: P.30) says, “The ability to construct information technology has assisted religious fundamentalists not only to survive, but also to use it for their religious needs.” The Muslim fundamental organiasations and extremist elements posted lots of hate messages on the Internet during the cartoon controversy and they are still available on the Net. The controversial cartoons published by the Jyllands-Posten are also available on the Internet. It shows that the technology has considerably taken away the power of the media to control its own message. In other words, new communication technologies necessitate the media to be more responsible and vigilant.




The media has freedom as well as responsibility and publication of offensive material should be done only in public interest. Journalists should play a constructive role rather than destructive in matters of peace and social harmony. It is advisable for media to impose self-censorship in the publication of sensitive matters to avoid violence and anarchy. When media fails to uphold high ethical standards and law of the land, external agencies including the Government may try to regulate them. The new communication technology demands the media to be more vigilant and sensitive as it is an opportunity as well as threat. This does not mean that the media should not publish anything against religions and impose self-censorship in all sensitive matters. Media has to oppose all kinds unhealthy attitude of religions based on real incidents or stories. The argument is that the media do not have the right to publish blasphemous or objectionable, imaginary materials putting society at risk in the name of the press freedom.



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