Millennium Post

Freedom of media vs freedom of people?

US President Barack Obama once again invoked Gandhi at his recent UN General Assembly speech to condemn both the anti-Islam video Innocence of Muslims as well as the violence emanating from the anti-film protests that has now spread all over the Middle East and other Muslim countries including Pakistan. In the light of this, it is worth pondering whether the freedom of the media has come to represent something other than freedom and happiness of the people that it claims to speak for.

The latest examples of media vs people showdowns lay bare some important facts.

Firstly, media is hardly the principled ‘fourth estate’, responsible for giving voice to the masses, duty-bound to speak up for the people and question the establishment when the rights of the people are infringed. On the contrary, media, particularly sections of the media such as the tabloid press and television, pretty much thrive on snatching privacy from targets they call ‘celebrities.’ In a classic case of mutual symbiosis, the celebrities in turn survive on the bad press that they get by romping about the world, mostly in partially inebriated states and creating ruckus that get splashed all over the front pages of the tabloid papers. It’s a curious case of give and take and both parties seem to be aware of the ‘newsworthiness’ of an act, an appearance, a brawl, a breakup, a make up, a make out session, and peek-a-boo through a very scanty dress and innumerable other predictable ways of making headlines.

However, when the tabloid press targeted Kate, or Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, future Queen of Great Britain, the outcome was both a worldwide furore as well as exponentially increased sales of the French magazine Closer that first published the pictures of the royal entity sunbathing in the balcony of her private villa. The global outrage over the publication of the topless photos of Kate was like saying enough is enough. Yet, almost every one of the genuinely outraged individuals didn’t lose anytime before googling the pictures and looking them up online. The British tabloid media, notorious all over the world for their crude and ritual assault on individual privacy and now reeling under the scathing sentence of the Leveson inquiry into its ethics, suddenly became sanctimonious and condemned the French, and subsequently the Italian and Irish press, for their unquenchable appetite for titillating images of the British royals.

What this betrays more than anything else is clear-cut class snobbery  — in popular perception, the Duchess is above the prying eyes of paparazzi, while the rest of us are not. That the photographer from Closer magazine, who photographed Kate using a zoom lens, turned out to be a woman and got stamped a ‘scumbag’ by the English tabloid Daily Mirror, only added fuel to this synthetic fire.

Secondly, media is not a homogenous entity that is the same everywhere. Media organisations have vested interests and serve a particular ideology. They are usually national [or regional] in their orientation and affiliation. Even the big, transnational corporations like Newscorp, BBC, CNN, the Times group, and others have headquarters in particular countries, mostly USA and UK, from where their operations are regulated. So, the fact that the Western media is biased against a large section of the global population, namely the 1.5 billion Muslims, mustn’t come across as a huge surprise. Contrast the moral overreaction paraded towards the publication of Kate’s photos with the apathy shown towards the existence on Youtube of the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims since June this year. While the US government was quick to condemn the film — Obama called it ‘disgusting’ and ‘an attack on UN ideals,’ and Hillary Clinton clarified that the US government had nothing to do with the insulting video — nevertheless, the headlines in the Western media highlighted not the rampant cultural racism that’s merely distilled in the film, but the spectacular protests that the film generated, ostensibly at the behest of interested political parties who have an axe of their own to grind. In the midst of all this manufactured mayhem, the US ambassador to Libya became the target of possibly a preplanned attack. Quickly, the outcry in the Western media metamorphosed from one condemning the film to lamenting the lack of tolerance, propensity towards violence and a fomenting cultural ‘rage’ against the West and western values.

To top it all, Salman Rushdie, whose memoir of the fatwa years Joseph Anton was released last week, corroborated the mainstream idea in the Western media saying that the case of Satanic Verses was only the beginning of what is clearly going to be a protracted war between intrepid expression and cultural intolerance. He also rubbished the film as ‘garbage’ but emphasized that even though it was trash and amounted to nothing but incendiary hate speech, it still had a right to exist, while others were in their rights to peacefully pan it.

Many commentators in the West have underlined the fact that Muslims in Europe and America, despite criticising the poor taste of the film, chose to steer clear of the anti-film protests, which they attributed to their moderate ideology as well as a rational, enlightened [read Western] approach to the whole affair. This they linked with the ‘lessons learnt from the Satanic Verses episode.’ However, their insinuation — that Muslims in the West tend to nurture a milder ideology and do not all turn out to be fundamentalists, unlike those in the Middle East, or in countries that are the hotbed of terrorism, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan — does not go unnoticed.

In fact, global online media giant Google was also not above displaying double standards when it came to acting ethically after it became obvious that the film was aimed at deliberately maligning the Islamic Prophet, and not starting a polemical debate on Islamic philosophies. Youtube, that Google owns, maintained that the film would not be taken down, as it did not amount to hate speech against any living individual. However, it has been reported that in August, upon the complaints from the Australian ‘Online Hate Prevention Institute,’ Youtube removed some anti-Semitic videos from its website, thus clearly spelling out that anti-Islamism is okay but anti-Semitism is not. Further, the fact that Youtube has made the anti-Islam film unavailable selectively [first in Egypt and Libya, then in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and India!], but not in Pakistan [which banned Youtube as a result], and other Middle Eastern countries, points towards the blatantly monetary reasons driving the company’s media ethics policies.

It’s more than evident that the West’s peddling the notion that freedom of speech is absolute does not hold ground when it comes to denying the Holocaust, or saying incendiary speech against the US government. While it’s ferociously comic that a Pakistani minister has declared a bounty of $ 100,000 upon the head of the notorious video’s producer — a shady, fraudster called Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, Google’s own stance on this issue is also not above scrutiny.

There is an increasing blurring between what constitutes media censorship and what might amount to ethical regulation of media products such as news items, political and cultural opinions, videos, works of literary and cinematic arts etc. Philosophically it is difficult to establish a dividing line between ethics and censorship, and often there is a substantial overlap, depending upon the current tastes and mainstream public opinion.  Are the protesters within their rights to articulate their clearly hurt sentiments in the manner that they are doing so? Yes, and no. Resorting to violence is never a welcome option, yet taking cue from Obama, who quoted Gandhi’s words that ‘Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit,’ it might be said that anti-Islamism in itself is a pernicious form of cultural violence that goes unreported in vast swathes of global media. [IPA]
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