Talk nice and behave yourself for the good of others
What was initially billed as a celebration of the importance of religious and cultural tolerance and understanding turned into something a bit harder edged when the 56 nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) held a major conference in Baku, Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov voices pride in his country as a ‘land of […]
30 Apr 07

What was initially billed as a celebration of the importance of religious and cultural tolerance and understanding turned into something a bit harder edged when the 56 nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) held a major conference in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov voices pride in his country as a ‘land of tolerance’ where – and by and large it is true – people live in a spirit of ‘harmony in difference’ regardless of ethnic origin and religious affiliation.

The April 26-27 conference on the Role of Media in the Development of Tolerance & Mutual Understanding drew more than 180 delegates to Baku at a timely moment in the wider debate.

The UN has appointed the former Portuguese president Jorge Sampaio as High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, to promote reconciliation between religions, cultures and nations. And the world body’s human rights committee has just passed a controversial resolution aimed at stopping ‘defamation’ of religions in general and Islam in particular.

In Baku the lead conference participants very quickly got to their point: that a key problem was the media’s failure to take proper professional responsibility for its various deeds.

‘Both democracy and liberty are senseless if the citizens, the institutions, the state and the media do not have the highest sense of responsibility in all that they do,’ said keynote speaker Ion Iliescu, former president of Romania.

Iliescu cited the case of Don Imus, the US radio station ‘shock jock’ fired after voicing one racist epithet too many for his employers. Forced to choose between audiences, profit, and social responsibility, they chose the last and dismissed him, he said. ‘(Was that) an infringement of freedom of expression?’ Illiescu asked. ‘Obviously not!’

The Imus case was to Iliescu’s eyes, black and white. There were no greys to confuse his judgment when asked whether it was right to qualify the basic human right of freedom of expression solely in the name of racial tolerance and community cohesion.

Taking up the theme, a series of speakers lined up to call on the western media to stop ‘belittling or denigrating’ Islam, in the words of one Egyptian delegate. Yet often the long term beneficiary of such thinking is not mutual understanding, let alone tolerance, but the ambitions of governments to manage communities and constrain political debate.

Examples were close to hand. Only days before, Azeri opposition journalist Eynulla Fatullayev had been jailed in Baku for criminally libeling – ‘belittling or denigrating’ perhaps – an Azeri community in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan efficiently manages the activities of its own Muslim Sunni and Shia communities, plus its various Christian communities and 15,000 Azeri Jews through its State Committee for Work with Religious Associations.

The conference debate tracked the issue on through detailed calls from the Muslim delegates for tolerance, mutual understanding and mutual respect. Director-General Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri of the OIC’s cultural agency cited the UNESCO declaration on tolerance, a quality that is ‘above all an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others’, and cannot be used to justify infringements of these fundamental values.

Yet the debate still echoed the discussion surrounding the controversial passing of a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council on Combating Defamation of Religions on 30 March. The resolution, though not new – versions of it have been passed every year since 9/11 by the Council’s predecessor body at the UN – has been widely criticised.

Opponents argue that the resolution does little to protect the rights of the believer or their right to freedom of religious belief, and justifies specific controls on the believers’ rights to freedom of expression. The motion puts the focus on confronting defamation, suggesting that artists, writers and dissidents in states where religion has a political context could find their work censored to protect the ‘reputation’ of a particular faith.

In Baku these suspicions were fed by a recurring conference theme; that the western media is a homogenous force with a hostile agenda.

It was not a traditionally censorious position: Mammadyarov was one of many leading speakers to defend the principle of self-regulation of the media. However he argued that it had a ‘key role in preventing irresponsibility of media outlets and (to) encourage media to use its potential for the sake of peace and dialogue between cultures, rather than for the instigation of inter-religious and inter cultural tensions.’

Ironically though, many delegates who accused the western media of simplistically reading Islam as extremist and terroristic, were sometimes just as simplistic in their analysis of the western media itself.

Citing a 2001 Newsweek article by Indian Muslim born US journalist Fareed Zakaria headlined ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ Egyptian senior editor Mohammed Imbrahim el-Desouky of the daily al-Ahram argued that this kind of coverage presented a picture that fostered hostility.

Miklos Haraszti, chief representative on free expression issues at the Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe, was not so sure, contending that Zakaria’s article was a self-reflective look at US policy in the post 9/11 context. Western published opinion on US policy was more diverse and self-critical than many speakers from Muslim nations were suggesting.

What about the other side of the coin, asked Reinhard Meier, deputy editor of the Swiss daily Neue Zuricher Zeitung. ‘Is the reporting and information about pluralistic realities more objective and fairer in the media of Islamic countries?’ Furthermore the problem, thanks to the Internet, had gone beyond the realm of the conventional mainstream media.

Haraszti suggested that Islamist groups that issued fatwas that incited violence against writers and journalists should be prosecuted in their home countries. Meier recognized the problem of unbalanced reporting and a tendency to generalize and stereotype among journalists. But the “level of imperfection” was not the same everywhere.

Five journalists are now in jail in Azerbaijan. Fatullayev, jailed for 18 months for a libel in a website post he denies writing, is the editor of Realny Azerbaijan, successor to the opposition weekly Monitor, shut down after the March 2005 assassination of its editor Elmar Huseynov.

Fatullayev’s imprisonment ‘is part of a pattern of increasing repression of independent media in Azerbaijan, often through politically motivated defamation cases,’ says the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Council of Europe secretary general Terry Davis told the Baku conference that freedom of expression is a right that must be exercised in a ‘respectful and civil manner to ensure peaceful coexistence’, but the rights of individuals to express different views and beliefs also needed protection. It is a principle that is still only selectively applied.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.