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The Mohammed controversy: what is safe to publish?

The People Party's Youth (DFU) in Denmark has filed a complaint against Nyhedsavisen for publishing a video showing their members competing to draw Mohammed at a party. The frontpage story from the freesheet's launch day has turned out to be a problematic scoop that raises troubling, but important questions.

A left-leaning editor gets hold of the 'ultimate scoop': a video showing drunken youth politicians from Denmark's biggest anti-immigration party competing to make fun of Mohammed, exactly what the editor for a long time has suspected goes on in the echelons of power on the far right. A disgrace for the party? Well, maybe people expected that sort of thing from The People Party's Youth (DFU), but the editor is attacked for reigniting Muslim anger by publishing the story. The Danish Embassy in Iran is bombarded with Molotov cocktails, and Danish Muslims scramble to explain to their counterparts worldwide that no, the video was not made to offend Muslims. The publishing editor insists that the international protests are not his fault but DFU's.

Yesterday, DFU filed a complaint against Nyhedsavisen to the Danish press complaints commission for publishing the video from their summer conference: "This was a closed, private arrangement where the public did not have access. The video recordings were made by a person who, at the time was a member, under the condition that the recordings were for private use only and would not be made public," said Kenneth Kristensen, the leader of DFU. He claimed that the video of drunken DFU members drawing Mohammed was of marginal public interest, and asserted that the only effect of publishing the recordings was to put the lives of those captured on the video in danger (several of them received death threats after the video was published and had to go undercover).

Now, one might argue, as many do, that the 'scoop' was lowbrow journalism at best, or a 'non-story', that it had an agenda (to disgrace the right), and it was a storm in a tea cup of limited interest to the public. Still, the angry and violent reactions this story has attracted are frightening and have far-reaching repercussions. I'm tempted here, to let the facts above stand on their own and let people draw their own conclusions, but here are a few questions this story leaves me with (apart from the ever controversial issue of filming by stealth):

Do we live in a world where journalists must abstain from reporting on certain issues for fear of offending religious sensibilities, even when, as in this case, wrongly or rightfully, the editor might have thought he contributed to revealing a threat to multiculturalism? Should he have expected the death threats to DFU? Is this something we have to learn to live with: that stories which expose a negative story about Islam, or people making fun of the religion, result in death threats against the people involved? And has it really come to this? That youths, admittedly with political roles, drawing stupid drawings at a party can become a threat to a country's economy (Danish companies faced renewed boycotts), and ultimately world peace?

Last week it was feared that Nyhedsavisen's 'scoop' would lead to a new crisis for Denmark on the same scale as the cartoon war. That seems to have been averted, but the whole affair leaves behind many disturbing questions.

Update 21/12-06: The Danish press complaints comisson critisises Nyhedavisen: a majority of its members feel the video was of no public interest, the freesheet's editor disagrees (in Danish, via Mediawatch).


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