“My kids generation and even mine took our freedoms for granted growing up. But now we are challenged to make choices, ” says Flemming Rose, foreign affairs editor at the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten.
Rose knows what he is talking about. In September 2005, as cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, a leading Danish newspaper, he was responsible for the publication of a number of cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, drawn by the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard.
Rose and Westergaard received numerous death threats from radical Muslims. In 2011, al-Qaeda published their names on its most wanted list, “Wanted dead or alive for crimes against Islam,” together with Dutch politician Geert Wilders; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim and a prolific critic of Islam; Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian; Carsten Juste, former editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten; Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, American cartoonist Molly Norris, Terry Jones, a Florida preacher who has burned the Koran; and Stephane Charbonnier, editor-in-chief of the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo, who was murdered by Al-Qaeda terrorists on January 7, 2015.
“After the cartoon crisis, I traveled around the world for five years debating the issues raised by the cartoons,” he says. “I discovered that it basically is the same debate everywhere. It is freedom of expression on the one hand and on the other hand, the how to balance freedom of expression against other kinds of considerations. The First Amendment in the United States guarantees almost unlimited freedom. But in Qatar, Russia, China, free speech is restricted.”
Rose argues that since we are living in a globalized world, “We must take note of the fact that the Netherlands, Denmark and other parts of the world are becoming more and more multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious.”
This globalized world means that our societies are getting more and more diverse when it comes to faith, culture and ethnicity. And this, according to Rose, raises the question of how to safeguard fundamental liberties such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
“It is very important to protect freedom of expression according to the Gold Standard set in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This means that people have the right to say whatever they want, as long as they do not incite to criminal activity.”
But Rose notes that this Gold Standard is being violated. New laws are being passed to protect intolerant, vocal and often violent groups. “It is very difficult to stand up for free speech in this new globalized world that trends into restricting free expression,” he says and notes, “It is ironic that this trend started in Western Europe, where millions of people want to travel to in order to live a decent life.”
When asked about the current Islamist threat, Rose admits to be worried. “While I fully support freedom of speech, I am also in favor of banning radical Muslim preachers.” He goes further to suggest that it is not undemocratic to deny them a visa “to our part of the world.”
Rose went on to comment that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were not republished by his own paper, Jyllands-Posten, or by many other Danish newspapers. Rose had told his editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten that he wouldn’t criticize his decision. However, to be honest about Jyllands-Posten’s motivation, Rose explained that there was an editorial published in his paper with the headline ‘Violence Works’. It said that they were not republishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons just because they want to be nice, but because of what the cartoons look like. “It was not a journalistic consideration, it was a security decision,” he continued. When his colleagues in Denmark try to rationalize their feelings by saying, “We know what these cartoons look like, so we don’t have to show them again,” Rose’s response is, “Well, we also know what Barack Obama looks like, but every time he makes a speech, we publish a photograph of him.”
Rose mentions a Danish journalist who wrote a profile about Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist and victim at the Copenhagen terror attacks in February. Although the attacker failed to murder Vilks, when the journalist filed her story, she asked the editor-in-chief if her byline should be removed. She had only written a profile of Lars Vilks but she believed she could get in trouble for writing about this person. Later on, the copy-editor’s wife criticized him for having his name at the top of that page, even though it is customary in Denmark.
Rose argues that for this kind of intimidation, a public debate is necessary. He elaborates, “I think there is a very important distinction to be made between a fear society and a free society.” Therefore, we need to consider which society we want to live in. He continues, “What I see is that some of the mechanisms of a fear society are beginning to manifest themselves in democratic Europe. People don’t want to admit it and editors don’t want to say that they are afraid.”
After the murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004, Rose “disappointingly” listened to Piet Hein Donner, the Dutch Minister of Justice at the time, who suggested that van Gogh might still be alive if he had not offended Muslims, implying that the victim was the problem. Through van Gogh’s offensive words, he had had triggered others to kill him. Rose notes that the debate in Europe is more or less the same now. Recently, it was decided to keep the blasphemy laws in Denmark. After the terror attacks in Copenhagen, the Danish Justice Minster argued for these blasphemy laws because “If some crazy guy in Denmark burns the Koran and we don’t have these laws, then crazy people in other parts of the world might cause serious problems.”’
Rose believes that the concept of cultural counter-terrorism is a great idea, because “the fight against the jihadists is a ‘battle of ideas’ that cannot be won only with police and the intelligence service.”
* This interview took place in Holland, on April 23, 2015
* Emerson Vermaat is a journalist and writer in the Netherlands. He is now writing a Dutch study on ISIS/ISIL. Website: www.emersonvermaat.com.
Afshin Ellian and Gelijn Molier from Leiden University, the Netherlands, edited the book Freedom of Speech under Attack. This important new book was presented to Flemming Rose during his visit to the Netherlands.