Opinion: Freedom of the press includes the freedom not to publish | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 14.01.2015
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Opinion: Freedom of the press includes the freedom not to publish

Sweeping criticism of leading US media for not publishing Charlie Hebdo cartoons is understandable – and wrong. Journalists should support press freedom, but that does not mean indiscriminately publishing cartoons.

The impulse was clear and broadly shared. After the heinous massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris last week, media organizations and professionals around the world rallied around their slain colleagues in support of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Many outlets, like DW, reacted to the carnage by taking pictures of staffers holding "Je suis Charlie" signs which quickly became a global symbol of solidarity with the victims. In turn, this journalistic display of solidarity and support for press freedom became itself part of the ongoing coverage and debate of the larger Charlie Hebdo story.

In the wake of the massacre, many outlets also chose to run Charlie Hebdo cartoons, while others did not. And again the decisions by media organizations to publish or not to publish cartoons have become part of the ongoing coverage of the larger Charlie Hebdo story and led to an engaged debate. To have this debate is not only legitimate, but useful.

Wholesale critique

It is also fair game to question and criticize leading US legacy media like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Associated Press who did not publish any of the cartoons depicting Muhammad immediately after the attack as many Muslims deem them offensive. CNN and Fox News also did not air pictures of the cartoons.

However, to blanketly call those media outlets "hypocrites" and accuse them of "self-censorship" and caving in to jihadists may be emotionally understandable, but it is insulting and counterproductive.

The job of media organizations and journalists is to assess, weigh and present the information that they deem important and relevant for their audience in the manner they think is best suited to achieve that purpose. News value is one frequently-cited criteria for doing that, public interest is another important, but less-cited, one.

Journalistic questions

So let's look at the Charlie Hebdo cartoons under that guise. Is it necessary in order to convey the story of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and its context to publish one or many of the incriminating Muhammad cartoons? Put differently, do the Muhammad cartoons, offensive to many Muslims as they are, have an intrinsic news value?

Probably most journalists would answer that they do have news value as they are ostensibly why Charlie Hebdo was attacked.

The other aspect is whether it is in the public interest to publish images considered offensive or blasphemous by parts of society. The answer to that question is much less clear. To be sure, press freedom gives journalists the right to publish information, even if it is offensive to parts of society.

But that does not mean journalists should gratuitously publish inflammatory information or images just because they can. Instead, they must judge whether they can convey the necessary information otherwise without unnecessarily offending people.

As a result, whether to publish the cartoons at all, and which ones, is a judgement call. Buzzfeed, as many other US Internet outlets, featured a broader selection of Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, who had not published a Muhammad cartoon after the attack decided to run the new Charlie Hebdo cover depicting a crying Muhammad. Meanwhile, the New York Times again decided not to run a cartoon depicting Muhammad.

All of which can be justified. It is called freedom of the press. And it includes the decision not to publish.