Freedom of expression or freedom from insult?

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Central Europe is caught up in the debate over press freedom and religious sensitivities after papers in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria and Poland re-printed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. The caricatures were first printed in a Danish newspaper sparking protests around the world. In Poland the debate has led to questioning of the extent of media freedoms and there's been an apology by Polish authorities to the Arab world.

Photo: CTK
Under the title "Freedom of expression is not a provocation", Rzeczpospolita - considered one of the most serious and opinion forming Polish newspapers - carried a reprint of the controversial pictures published earlier by some Danish and Norwegian dailies. Grzegorz Gauden, Rzeczpospolita's editor, stated the reprint had been a form of protest against aggressive reactions from radical Islamic groups to the original publications.

"Threats of bomb attacks and rewards for assassinating the cartoon authors are impermissible. That is the opinion of numerous European media. Our newspaper wanted to solidarize with this stand. I took this decision with considerable stress."

But, when there is an evident clash of freedom of the press with freedom of religious expression, should the media exercise their right regardless of the potential consequences the action may bring about? Andrzej Krajewski, former head of the Center for Monitoring Press Freedoms in Warsaw says he has doubts on the decision.

"The Polish media were not in a situation under pressure whether it was necessary to say yes or no in a very concrete situation. And the explanation that this is a manifestation of solidarity with the western colleagues is not convincing enough for me. The position of the International Federation of Journalists is that it's up to you to decide whether in local conditions you think it's necessary to publish, or reprint rather, the caricatures or not. They themselves represent, somehow, the world of journalism. They are not completely sure."

According to foreign minister Stefan Meller the incident had been very unfortunate. The Polish head of diplomacy acknowledged the right to free expression, but admitted to abusing religious feelings of the Muslim community.

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"I would like to ask all the ambassadors of Arab countries accredited in Warsaw to relay to their respective societies that bearing in mind Poland's traditionally friendly disposition towards them, the situation is a misunderstanding created by a reprint of material contained in other European press."

One day later, following the example of foreign minister Meller, Gauden apologized to all those, whose religious feelings his paper had offended assuring it carried no such intentions.

Robert Strybel, a Western media correspondent based in Warsaw, believes that in the end run it is common sense that should define the limits of press freedom.

"The question is - do we have a freedom to harm others, because offending someone's religious sensibilities is creating harm to that person. So there's a toss up between these two things - the pursuit of money and scandals which always increase circulation and TV ratings. People have been blinded by all other considerations. And so, I think, a little bit of restraint is called for in this case."

Can the publication of the controversial caricatures undermine Poland's positive image in Islamic countries? Poland has been perceived in the Arab world as friendly and unbiased, often acting as a mediator representing Western interests, even those of the U.S. and Israel. Professor Janusz Danecki from Warsaw University has been on the spot in the Lebanese capital.

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"I'm observing it here from Beirut and the place where the worse incidents took place. And the people understand that the whole incidents were only a repercussion of what's been happening in west European press. And the reaction of the Polish government was repeated and broadcasted. Therefore, our image wasn't very much changed in the eyes of the public here."

Professor Danecki added that no anti-Polish manifestations had been noted either in Lebanon, nor reported from other Arab countries.

Poland's Muslim Religious Union representing over 30 thousand faithful has announced it would be taking the Rzeczpospolita paper to court for the reprint of the controversial caricatures of Prophet Mohammed deeming the editor's apology insufficient and not sincere.