Friday, November 7, 2008

Ulf Johansson gets wolf-like about freedom of speech

Kalmar - Sweden. On August 19, 2007, the Nerikes Allehanda newspaper printed a drawing by Swedish artist Lars Vilks depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a roundabout dog. According to editor-in-chief Ulf Johansson, the publishing of the image was done by the newspaper in order to protest the refusal of several Swedish art galleries to show a series of Mohammed paintings by Vilks. In tan editorial in the same newspaper, editorial-writer Lars Stroman writes: “A liberal society must be able to do two things at the same time. On the one hand, it must be able to defend Muslims╒ right to freedom of religion and their right to build mosques. However, on the other hand, it is also permissible to ridicule Islam’s most foremost symbols - just like all other religions - symbols. There is no opposition between these two goals. In fact, it is even the case that they presuppose each other.” Stroman continues: “What happens if a fundamentalist Muslim wants to express his faith through pictorial art? Quite clearly, it will be easy to persuade art galleries that the pictures are unsuitable, that they may lead to conflict. So the restriction of Lars Vilks’ possibilities to express himself may also negatively affect Muslims╒ right to express themselves.” WAN, the global association of the world’s press, expressed support for the Swedish publishing community, which has rallied behind artist Lars Vilke and Editor Ulf Johansson of the Nerikes Allehanda newspaper, which published the cartoon to draw attention to threats to freedom of expression in Sweden. The cartoon sparked angry reactions in the Arab world, culminating in a bounty being offered by Al Qaeda in Iraq for the murders of Vilke and Johansson. "While appreciating that the publication of the drawing may have caused offence to many Muslims, WAN emphasizes that the Nerikes Allehanda enjoys full freedom of expression and that a choice to publish the drawing falls within that right and should be duly respected," the Paris-based WAN said. However, in a taped message said that extremist militants belonging to Al Qaeda in Iraq were announcing a "call to shed the blood of the Lars who dared to insult our Prophet." "During this generous month we announce an award worth $100,000 to the person who kills this infidel criminal," referring to Viks, the speaker said. He also announced a $50,000 reward for the killing of the editor of the newspaper - Mr. Johansson.” The tape said that the Swedish government ought to apologize - otherwise al-Qaeda in Iraq would target "their economy and giant companies such as Ericsson, Volvo, Ikea, Scania". The cartoon's creator, Lars Vilks, told Reuters news agency he was not worried by a threat from people representing "a very small branch of our Muslims". But he could not disregard it, either, and was in contact with the police. "It is fundamental for Western thinking to be able to express one's artistry without making exceptions for holiness," he said. As part of the escalation the Swedish prime minister held a meeting with 22 Moslem ambassadors. Egyptian ambassador Mohamed Sotouhi told news agency TT that he and a group of fellow ambassadors had agreed on a list of measures Sweden needed to take if it was to secure a long-term solution to the Muhammad cartoon controversy. According to Sotouhi, "comprehensive measures" were required if Sweden was to prevent some "amateur artist" from reawakening tensions every other month. "We want to see action, not just nice words. We have to push for a change in the law," he said. "Muslims need legal protection against the desecration of the Prophet Muhammad, maybe something similar to the protection enjoyed by Jews and homosexuals." While praising the "very constructive steps" taken by Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Egyptian ambassador said that Sweden had much work left to do. "In the long term the school curriculum has to convince pupils that if they want to express their opinion they should do so in such a way that it doesn't cause offence or hurt. This should also be part of journalism training," said Sotouhi. "A permanent parliamentary committee also needs to be established to tackle islamophobia," he added. As part of the protests, about 300 people rallied outside the newspaper's offices, demanding an apology and saying the cartoon, a rough sketch showing Muhammad's head on a dog's body, was insulting to Muslims. "We want to show Nerike's Allehanda that Muslims in this city are upset over what happened," Jamal Lamhamdi, chairman of the Islamic cultural center in Orebro, told Swedish public radio. Orebro is a city of about 100,000 residents, 125 miles west of Stockholm. Nerikes Allehanda editor-in-chief Ulf Johansson met with Lamhamdi but refused to apologize for the cartoon, which was part of an Aug. 19 editorial criticizing several Swedish art galleries for refusing to display a series of prophet drawings by Vilks. "They say they are offended and I regret that, because our purpose was not to offend anyone," Johansson told The Associated Press. "But they are asking for an apology and a promise that I never again publish a similar image ... and that I cannot do." For the sake of clarification, the drawing was only published in the print edition not in the online one where other people can see it. The paper has a limited local circulation of 65,0000 copies. “But someone told me that in today’s world, there is no such thing as local any longer. Anything can be spread the world over,” admits Johansson. He also says that he was not able “to move without police protection for some time afterward” and that “It was not too comfortable to be surrounded by police.” But Johansson remains adamant about his decision, and says: “It is worse for Muslims not to print this picture because it means we are treating them differently than the rest of the population whereas they should be equal. We all live under the same rules and values.” He even confesses “I don’t even like the picture.” But the artistic merit of the photo and his own esthetic sensibilities are far from the original topic of freedom of expression. “I have had Swedish mothers claiming I am endangering their sons╒ lives in Afghanistan. Because due to that kind of publicity, they will more likely to be targets to extremists. And I cannot work ever again if I have such a thing on my conscience.” Looking at the vibrant and outgoing Johansson - whose first name means “wolf” in Swedish - one realizes that he is totally serious and that the character has nothing to do with being a wolf, but rather with a combatant who truly believes in certain values and tries to apply them to real life. Johansson says “I have a Persian brother in law, I have discussed with him the difference between the Swedish bible and the Koran, I am very open to other religions and cultures to understand them better. But it is always more preferable to say things to argue against them, rather than ignore them. Otherwise they will fester and rot.” When asked the pressing question of the repetition of such an act, Johansson reflects and says: “Would I do this again? Depends on the context but I take responsibility for my readers. People in outside countries do not know what happened, they know something has happened and that it has to do with some editor in Sweden.” “I do not care if the president of Iran is upset. He denied the existence of Iranian homosexuals, which means that anywhere between 5 and 10% of the population did not exist for him. I am here to acknowledge the existence of everyone. Even those - especially those - who disagree with me.” “People in other countries do not know what happened, they only know that something happened. So their reaction is not justified because they do not know the context.” What is so amazing is that Johansson’s paper was the 7th or 8th paper to publish the drawing, “they were published before in Malmo and Stockholm were not offended even though there is a large Moslem population there.” When confronted with the classical accusation of doing it to attract attention Johansson simply dismisses the theory and says: “I did not publish it to become famous besides what kind of a fame is that? One where I have to be careful of my movements! I’d rather live without such a fame!” Recently, Johansson cancelled a trip to Beirut because of security reasons. The reason was that “one reporter from Spain recognized me in a social event after he saw the leader of an organization that some countries classify as terrorist toying around with my photos.” Another classical accusation is that his newspaper did the stunt to increase its circulation and get more notoriety, “but you do not understand, it is just a small newspaper in a regional country. Actually, 2 or 3 people cancelled their subscription in protest and 2 or 3 added theirs out of support so it evened out eventually.” However, not deterred from his main point, he confirms that “the only way to democracy and conflict-resolution does not go through censorship.” If he is so open-minded about such a publication, then what would he his “red line.” “Child pornography is a red line for me, there are many things I see in newspapers that I would not publish myself. Such as photos of injured people after a car crash and that person might not make it. Or photos of his parents in the waiting room of the hospital.” Ulf Johansson is fighting the fight on behalf of all people, be they his immediate readers of those of who never heard of his newspaper, he concludes by referring to what Evelyn Beatrice Hall said to summarize French philosopher Voltaire's ideas: "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
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