The freedom of the press in France is at stake as the French newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, which published several Prophet Mohamed cartoons last year, is brought before the courts. The editor of the weekly newspaper stands accused, by a union of islamic organisations, of insulting all muslims by running the racist cartoons.
The prosecuting barrister for the Grand Mosque in Paris said: “The reality is that the text says all muslims are idiots. If we find it acceptable that one can insult people because of their religion then that is fine. But it is not my understanding of France or the French law. “
The three cartoons in question show the Prophet Mohamed with his head in his hands, bemoaning that he is followed by idiots; another with a bomb in his turban and the third depicting him in heaven telling martyrs to stop arriving because he has run out of virgins.
More cartoons in a similar vein were published in a Danish newspaper, sparking a worldwide outcry among Muslim communities and a diplomatic crisis. Danish supporters came to court to bolster their French counterparts, insisting the case was of the utmost importance.
“If you abstain from using your freedom of speech the consequences would be that you would have a restriction of the liberties on which our society is built,” said Danish author Ralph Pittelkow. Presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy agrees. He sent a surprise letter to the paper’s headquarters supporting its right to satirize any subject it wishes – quite often it has been him.
His open support has infuriated the French Muslim Council. But the editor of the paper, Philippe Val, says the cartoons only mock terrorists, not muslims in general. “You only have to look at the cartoons to see that no muslim is being insulted. Some muslims might take it that way, but democracy is a place for debate and sometimes we hear things we don’t agree with,” he said.
The Danish editor who published the cartoons first, Fleming Rose, was also in Paris for the court hearing.
“We will do everything we can to support Charlie Hebdo. I just can’t imagine the consequences not only for France but for Denmark, for Europe, if they would lose this case,” he said.
There was no court case in Denmark following publication of the cartoons there. The Jyllands-Posten was criticised when the incident provoked the torching of various Danish embassies worldwide and a wave of demonstrations, but there was no wider discussion on press freedom.