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Religions and the media

Freedom of Speech and religion in media generally

Both a general and a more specific analysis of current debates on religion and media in Denmark begins with freedom of speech. As the right to put into print, writing and speech ones opinion (...)

Both a general and a more specific analysis of current debates on religion and media in Denmark begins with freedom of speech. As the right to put into print, writing and speech ones opinion without the fear of censorship, freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Danish Constitution of 1849 and in all subsequent revisions. Thus the latest from 1953, states in §77, that “… any person shall be at liberty to publish his ideas in print, in writing, and in speech, subject to his being held responsible in a court of law. Censorship and other preventive measures shall never again be introduced.”

Thus, it is the responsibility of government under the responsibility of parliament, both to make sure that there is a freedom of speech, while at the same time both prosecuting defamation and protecting the public order.A press council has been set up as an independent supervising institution that deals with complaints of any kind over media in all forms. This is done by the Danish Media Liability Act. It managed in collaboration with representatives from media and parliament the guidelines for sound press ethics and code of conduct. These guidelines, the press council and – in extreme cases – the police, are making sure that both the freedom of speech is maintained while no other freedoms are violated, among these, the freedom to privacy and freedom to belief and worship according to one’s convictions.

Religion has in a sense always been part of public life and thus also part of the media. The traditional and well established newspapers would report on events relating to the Church and from time to time a sermon or a theological debate would be present. However, religion did not generally play a significant role. When it did, this would be on matters concerning the majority Danish Evangelical-Lutheran Church. In 1896, however, the Christian Daily was established after disputes between inner-mission Christians and more liberal wings of the church concerning exaggerations and allegations about their differences and mutual positions. There was a need for a newspaper that took ecclesiastical life seriously. The paper is still in print and has made a niche for itself on matter of faith, ethics and existence.

In radio and television, religion entered through a commitment to public service. In Denmark, because the state was the first to offer radio broadcasts with the Danish Radio, government – that is the ministry for cultural affairs – was committed by law to make sure that a certain standard of public service was met. When television was introduced, the same requirement of public service was put into force. With Danish Radio having a monopoly on broadcasting in both radio and television until 1988, the commitment to public service meant that both radio and television had to provide programming to suit the broader public. Thus, there were narrow programs with a small audience and large, often entertainment shows that addressed itself to the general public in prime time. As part of this, religion was given a legally and publicly financed voice from time to time.

Most substantially are the Sunday morning services of one of the parishes of the Danish Evangelical-Lutheran Church, which are aired both on radio and television since the very early days of radio. This caters to the 85% of the audience that are members of the Danish Evangelical-Lutheran Church. In addition to this, from time to time programs address issues in relation to minority religion. However, no voice is given on a regular basis to other religions or religious communities.

D 13 September 2012    ANiels Valdemar Vinding

Current issues and two cases

Sociologists of religion have in later years pointed to a repeated overexposure of religion in media. Religion is generally a hot topic and Islam, perhaps, particularly. By overexposure is meant (...)

Sociologists of religion have in later years pointed to a repeated overexposure of religion in media. Religion is generally a hot topic and Islam, perhaps, particularly. By overexposure is meant that religion figures more commonly in media than in other public spheres and even in political debates. In some papers, one in four comments was about religion in the period from 2000 to 2010. This remains true both before and after the Muhammad Cartoons were printed in 2005.

However, a distinct point worth making here, is that it is not religion as such that is given voice or being presented, but people’s opinions and attitudes towards religions, political or otherwise. People are not becoming the more religious, but religion is being contested more harshly in media as one form of expression of opinion. More and more people are forming more or less reflected opinions about religion. Which is very much part of the context that led to the Cartoons Crisis.

Case 1: Cartoon Crisis and Freedom of Speech in the face of religion

This is not the place to go into the whole story of the Muhammad Cartoons Crisis, but some aspects are relevant here.

Throughout the five years that have passed since the cartoons were first published, the newspaper Jyllands-Posten has maintained that it is protected under the freedom of speech. Different key figures in the affairs have issued limited apologies, saying they were sorry for the trouble they caused, but would not have acted differently. One of the newspapers, however, apologised to ‘anyone who was offended’. There we are far from finding agreement on the matter within Danish media.

A repeated part of this story is about whether or not there is a limit to freedom of speech that could be self-imposed as self-censorship. The start of the whole controversy was about the fear that certain cartoonists gave as reason not to illustrate a book about the Quran. The sentiment of the debate was that that people would do to the Bible things that they would not to the Quran. To the editors at Jyllands-Posten this could not do, as both (a negative) equality of religion and freedom of speech were challenged by this self-imposed censorship.

After the cartoons where published, the Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was approached by eleven ambassadors from the Middle East in order to discuss the ‘smear campaign’ of the Prophet in Danish media. The Prime Minister would not apologize or even prosecute for something done within the limits of the law, and he - rather paradoxically - used Christian Lutheran doctrine to argue why politics and religion should not be mixed. Very recently, Wednesday 13th October 2010, the Danish foreign minister met in Cairo with the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar and called the pain it caused Muslims ‘very regrettable’. This was received as an apology by the Egyptian media, but the foreign minister and the Grand Imam both stress that it was not an apology. They state that there is a difference between the hurt caused and the cartoons themselves.

Case 2: ROJ TV, dissenting media and terrorism

When the former Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who came to the international limelight in the cartoons crisis, was candidate for the position of general secretary, he met with serious protests from Turkey. Not because of the Cartoons Crisis, but because Denmark allows ROJ TV to operate. ROJ TV has been under investigation since 2005 because Turkey claims that it receives support from the Kurdish separatists, the PKK, and it is spreading the Kurdish terrorist message. During the appointment hearings of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Turkey was given indirect reassurance that the Danish police and state prosecutor traveled to Turkey to negotiate the specificities and investigate further. That apparently satisfied the Turkish government who took it as a positive response to their request.

In March 2010, the Civil Board – which is the supervisory institution set up by the government decided that the financial support of ROJ TV was illegal. Their estimate of the financial support was about 118 million Danish Kroner (15 million EUR). In the months that followed, journalists from different newspapers documented in a series of articles that ROJ TV was closer to the PKK that previously assumed.All this led the Minister of Justice, on the 31st of August 2010, to ask the state prosecutor to take legal action against ROJ TV and affiliate companies. This was followed by warranted searches and confiscation of computers and archives. There will not be any prosecution of the people involved as the prosecutor wants the courts assessment of ROJ TV’s right to broadcast. Nothing is mentioned such as incitement to terror or the like. There has however been speculation that the legal action against ROJ TV, which is likely to drive them to go permanently off the air, has more to do with negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan. He is apparently still directing many of the PKK operations from his prison cell, and the Turkish Erdogan government wanted to secure Kurdish support for the constitutional referendum held on September 12th, 2010. The hope was that the referendum, which was successful, could help pave the way for Turkish membership. In a sense, the legal action against ROJ TV was a small part of that, and what will happen in court remains to be seen.

D 13 September 2012    ANiels Valdemar Vinding

For further information

Ellegaard (2010): “Er det nu nat med Roj-TV”, Information, 31. August 2010.
Iversen (2007), H. R.: “Religion skamrides i politik og medier,” Information, 25 july 2007.
Klausen (2009), J.: The (...)

Ellegaard (2010): “Er det nu nat med Roj-TV”, Information, 31. August 2010.

Iversen (2007), H. R.: “Religion skamrides i politik og medier,” Information, 25 july 2007.

Klausen (2009), J.: The Cartoons that Shook the World, Yale University Press.

Nissen (2010), U. B.: “Lutheran Natural Law. Thought in the Nordic Countries in the 21st century,” in: Christoffersen et al (2010): Law & Religion in the 21st Century – Nordic Perspectives. DJØF publishers, Copenhagen.

”ROJ TV – Danmarks varme kartoffel”, Politiken, 31. August 2010.

Sløk (2009), C.: “Here I stand: Lutheran stubbornnes in the Danish Prime Minister’s office during The Danish Cartoon Crisis”. European Journal of Social Theory 12 (2).

D 13 September 2012    ANiels Valdemar Vinding

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