Speak Free or Die Hard
Last Saturday, Spain's King Juan Carlos made headlines at the Ibero-American summit for asking Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, "Why don't you shut up?" The heated and slightly comical exchange occurred after Chavez called former Spanish Prime Minister Azner a "fascist," an especially sensitive accusation considering that Juan Carlos's immediate predecessor was the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The irony of the situation is that, by insulting Chavez, the Spanish monarch exercised his right to free speech, a right that he does not fully extend to his own citizens.
Just three days after this incident, two Spanish satirists were found guilty of the crime of offending the Spanish royal family by publishing a cartoon of the crown prince and his wife having sex. Designed to satirize the Spanish government's policy of paying families to produce children, it depicted the crown prince saying, "Do you realize that if you get pregnant this will be the closest thing I've done to work in my whole life?" Every copy of the El Jueves magazine that showed the cartoon on its cover was seized by the police and destroyed. The judicial system ruled that the two men "had vilified the crown in the most gratuitous and unnecessary way" and imposed fines of 3,000 euros on each.
Spain is a parliamentary monarchy, and because the king is a political figure with deep political powers (including the abilities to make war, veto laws, appoint and remove the president and command the armed forces), the freedom to criticize him and the royal family is a prerequisite of free government. The cartoon in question is clearly satire and the freedom to promulgate it without the police preventing its distribution or its author facing legal consequences is essential for the free flow of ideas.
Turkey is no better. Article 301 of its penal code makes it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to denigrate the government of Turkey, its military or judicial institutions. More than 60 cases have been prosecuted under this law since it was adopted in 2005. This law has notably been used to suppress the discussion of the systematic deportation and murder of 1.7 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 -- an event which the Turks have a maniacal propensity to deny.
Romania is almost comical. In response to a national scandal in which video footage was broadcast on TV showing a Romanian government official taking bribes, the government passed a law that made a crime, punishable by up to seven years in prison, for journalists to publish video footage of government officials taking bribes.
Media intimidation comes from non-national organizations as well. During the 2005 Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy, death-threats from Islamic groups successfully intimidated some newspapers from reprinting the comics and suppressed forthcoming content critical of Islam. While covering the controversy, American news agencies like CNN would show the comics in question but blurred them out. Comedy Central notably made the decision to censor the image of Muhammad on an episode of South Park, which had specifically made the case for non-censorship. Conglomeration of media also poses a problem as it concentrates the publishing decisions for large bodies of journalism into a small number of hands. During the French presidential election, news stories revealing that the wife of (now President) Nicolas Sarkozy had not cast her vote, were halted by the paper's owner, a personal friend of Sarkozy. In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, Judith Regan, the former HarperCollins publisher who was fired during the O.J. Simpson "If I Did It" book scandal, alleges that while employed by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., she was encouraged to lie about her relationship with Mayor Rudy Giuliani's disgraced police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, in order to help Giuliani's future political ambitions.
If the media are ever to escape the problem of intimidation that prevents them from expressing themselves freely, they need to stand in collective solidarity. When Spain censors cartoons about the royal family, magazines around the world should print them on their covers. If Turkey censors discussion of genocide, outlets in surrounding countries should continually press the issue. If Muslims threaten Danish newspapers for printing the image of Muhammad, Asian and American newspapers should publish them as well. Intimidation through legal and physical threats can persist in isolated areas, but such threats fall flat against the collective resilience of the world. Thomas Paine, that great American rabble-rouser, said it best: If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.