By Alison Northcott
COPENHAGEN–Just after an argument with a Danish television news reporter, Ahmed Akkari is clearly agitated.
He has just walked away from the interview, refusing to answer further questions about the controversy over caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed printed in a Danish newspaper last fall.
Akkari represents 27 Muslim organizations that are angered by the drawings, one of which depicted the prophet with a bomb hidden in his turban. “We have a problem with several media taking only a part of the reality and not the whole picture,”Akkari says, referring to the female reporter and her camera person who remain within earshot a few feet away at the International Press Centre in downtown Copenhagen.
“Some media in the world are more critical towards what’s happening than others. It depends on the journalist, it depends how much information they have about the case and which perspective they are asking you from. All of these things can play a role.”
Media responsibility is one issue in the global debate that began when Denmark’s largest newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, printed 12 drawings many Muslims throughout the world deemed disrespectful and blasphemous. In December, after failed attempts to meet with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to discuss his groups’ concerns, Akkari took the 12 drawings, along with other drawings that have surfaced, to the Middle East. His intention was to garner support from Muslims outside of Denmark, where they make up less than five per cent of the population.
The support has come in the form of protests and demonstrations. Some have escalated and turned violent, leading to the deaths of a dozen protesters in Afghanistan. Pakistani security guards shot dead two protestors in Lahore on Tuesday. Hospital officials say 36 others were injured. Akkari says this is not the kind of action he was calling for.
“We condemn it. Of course we are not happy with the situation,” he says.
European Commission vice-president Franco Frattini denied last Thursday media reports he wanted to implement a voluntary code of conduct for media outlets to follow when reporting on Islam and other religions. “It is up to the media themselves to self-regulate or not, and it is up to the media to formulate such a voluntary code of conduct,” he said.
“Freedom of speech is one of the European Union’s pillars, and will remain to be one of its pillars.”
Flemming Ytzen is the deputy foreign news editor at Politiken, Jyllands-Posten’s sister newspaper in Denmark. The papers are owned by the same company, JP/Politken, but are managed by different editorial boards. As an editor, Ytzen says he supports the notion of free speech but he thinks Jyllands-Posten has gone too far. “In my view, the cartoons were a piece of blasphemy. There is no doubt in my mind,” Ytzen says. “We profess freedom of the press and freedom of the media. But there is some responsibility to that freedom. Editors are editors because they have to manage that freedom.”
Akkari, who is still awaiting an apology from Jyllands-Posten, says the media has a crucial role in this debate. Like Ytzen, he emphasizes responsibility. “It’s through media you communicate and it is the media that gives the picture to the world,” he says.
“It is very difficult because there is violence going on and (protesters) are burning embassies and… media people can link things together if they would like to. They have a great responsibility to the world.”
In her office at the International Press Centre in Copenhagen, Lisbet Metcalfe lights another cigarette. She is visibly frazzled and tired from weeks of juggling calls from hundreds of international journalists. She has never witnessed a story of this scope in Denmark. “It’s a very sad story because it just started out as being an international, Danish, small story and it’s now a scenery of nightmare, which I’ve never experienced in my 27 years in the foreign office,” she says.
There are normally 135 accredited journalists working out of Copenhagen. In recent weeks, however, media activity in Denmark has been anything but normal. Metcalfe says the number of journalists in Copenhagen has doubled as large-scale media outlets send reporters and stringers to the one-time fairytale city where this controversy was born.
“This is the epicentre of global news right now,” says Charles Ferro, an American freelance writer who has worked in Denmark for 27 years. “I think I’d dare say nothing like this has ever happened in the history of the world, where a newspaper in one country just creates such a situation around the globe.”
The events that have transpired in recent weeks, Ferro says, will have a lasting impact on the media worldwide. “I think this case is definitely going to set a precedent for editors around the world,” he says. “(Editors) will definitely think twice about doing anything potentially offensive.” Ytzen calls the controversy “unprecedented.”
“This is by far the largest international crisis that Denmark has been involved in since World War II,” Ytzen says. “This… will impact not only Danish foreign policy and European policy, but international relations as a whole.”