A conversation with Pakistan correspondent DECLAN WALSH.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADeclan Walsh reported from Pakistan for the Guardian from 2004-2011. Cherian George interviewed Walsh on 1 December 2011 while in residence at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, where he was writing a book about Pakistan. Walsh will be returning to Pakistan as the New York Times’ correspondent. Follow him on Twitter.

You were in Pakistan during the Prophet Muhammed cartoons controversy. Watching the reactions there, do you think that there’s a case for the media to be more sensitive to religious feelings? More sensitive than they would be in Western Europe or North America?

I certainly felt quite strongly at the time that the Western media was behaving in an irresponsible fashion by publishing material that was basically designed to harm religious sensibilities and provoke people. And I felt there was a lack of context on the part of the people who were doing it. While these things may be legally permissible in Western society, in Eastern – and particularly Pakistani and Afghan – society, these are the things that ordinary people took great offence to.

I suppose that the people who published those cartoons were doing that to make a statement about free speech in Europe, and perhaps there were very good reasons for them to do that. But what they didn’t take account of, clearly, was the fact that, in the internet age and in the television age, this would spread very quickly to other societies where people frankly aren’t capable of having that sort of sophisticated debate about free speech and religion. In Pakistan, particularly in the Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam, veneration of the Prophet Muhammad is something that is very central to people’s faith and that they take incredibly seriously.

The case

The Prophet Muhammed cartoon controversy involved 12 Prophet Muhammed cartooncartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005. (Above is one of the more innocuous ones.) The newspaper said it was a statement against a creeping culture of self-censorship in the face of religious fundamentalism. There were protests across the Muslim world, some of them violent. The Danish embassy in Pakistan was bombed.

One counter to that would be that it is legally all right to be offensive to religious beliefs, as long as one does not interfere with the individual’s right to practise his religion. Are you  saying that this distinction between beliefs and the individual is drawn too starkly, and in a way that some cultures wouldn’t accept?

It’s an old truism that what’s legal isn’t necessarily what’s right, for one. Secondly, those are probably very fair points to make in the context of societies and legal systems of Western Europe. My point is that in the modern world, through television and through the internet, those messages that you may send out to a Western audience actually spread extremely quickly to audiences in the rest of the world.

I think it’s important for Western journalists and media organisations to take cognisance of the fact that while this may be an acceptable debate to have in their society, it’s not in other societies. I think these things are highly contextual. This was the time of the Iraq War, the Afghan War was going full tilt, there was a lot of ill feeling in the Muslim world already about the West, and then along comes this statement which seems to not only have an overt political element to it but is also striking at the core of people’s belief system.

Frankly, to put it crudely, a lot of people in these countries who were participating in these protests weren’t particularly educated people and they were very easily riled up. People were killed. That’s the bottom line. It seemed unnecessary to me. When you look back on the net effect of those cartoons and everything that followed, I find it very hard to see what they advanced. So if I’m trying to figure out what the net positive effect of all that was, I am really at a loss to see it.

I suppose that’s what makes the Danish cartoons case a relatively easy one to grapple with. The cartoons came across as gratuitous. They could have made the same political point in another way, without causing such offence. But you must have come across ethically tougher cases, where an important point is being made, but it is treated as offensive.

Yes, Pakistan’s blasphemy law is the clearest case in point. But that is more a question of civil liberties. People who were persecuted, who were killed, were killed merely because they were voicing opposition to a law that was man-made. They were not voicing opposition to anything that was sacred. I don’t think it would qualify as hate speech. I don’t think it was a problem of the speech itself being offensive.

Although it can be portrayed that way. People can choose to take offence for political purposes.

Yes, things in Pakistan have reached an extreme situation where people who supported reform of the blasphemy law in the aftermath of Salman Taseer’s death were being labelled in the media as “liberal fascists”. Apart from the fact that the term “liberal fascist” is an oxymoron, it encapsulated the very black mood that had taken hold in the country at the time. Political forces were manipulating genuine religious sentiment in order to quell voices of progressive opinion in the country. And I thought that was a very dangerous thing.

The caseSalman Taseer

Salman Taseer, governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, was assassinated on 4 January 2011. He had been an outspoken critic of the country’s illiberal blasphemy law, which has been used to silence progressive voices.

How common is that strategy?

It’s been around for a long time. It is inextricably linked with the country’s difficulty with ideology, where Pakistanis still don’t know whether their country is some sort of Islamic state or whether it is just a homeland for Muslims, and therefore it’s very easy to exploit religious sentiment to political ends, which is what happens all the time.

And then you couple that with the American presence in Afghanistan. And even Taleban violence, which for a while Pakistanis had an ambivalent attitude towards because they felt that somehow the Taleban were fighting for Islam. Maybe you didn’t want to be part of their movement, but you couldn’t criticise them because they had Islam on their side. It took a long time, too long, for Pakistanis to realise that they did need to take a stand against it.

So there is a general atmosphere where you have an ideological weakness in the country, a partial vacuum, and then you have forces who rush in to claim that space. You have forces that, as you say, engage in very heavy spin, to say that we have God on our side, we have right on our side, and everyone else is wrong. When that’s backed up with coercion and violence, people are too terrified to oppose it.

What would your advice be for journalists covering politics in places where this phenomenon exists?

In general, journalists should abide by the principle of doing no harm where possible. Even that statement can be dangerous because there are always repercussions from stories that are hard to predict. Or, there may be repercussions that are unpleasant, but which journalists are not responsible for. I firmly believe that our responsibility is to tell the truth, and it’s a very dangerous road to go down, to start foisting upon journalists the responsibility to somehow behave as “good citizens”. I think journalists’ job is to reflect what they see around them.

Having said that, there are guidelines that all decent newspapers have. When there is a very stark case before us, we try to err on the side of not doing harm, particularly when there is no conflict between withholding that information and informing the public. I would apply the same principle to any story I’m involved with. There are always stories where we withhold little pieces of information, as long as the withholding of those pieces of information doesn’t endanger the telling of the story. So, in general, newspapers and journalists need to have a set of principles that they would apply to all areas of their work, and which they would also apply to hate speech.

I showed you a story in the Observer, which reports on a right-wing demonstration in the UK. In the middle of the story, the report quotes demonstrators chanting, “Allah, Allah, who the fuck is Allah”, right there on page one. Did the Observer go too far?

I think it is a question of context. I think if the headline on the piece was “Fuck Allah, say protesters” then clearly that would have been offensive and created a stir. I don’t remember seeing any reports that people were offended. So what is the problem? That we are giving a platform to these people? But readers of the Observer aren’t really for the English Defence League. So I’m struggling to see where the harm done is.

The case

“David Cameron was accused of playing into the hands oobserver cameronf rightwing extremists today as he delivered a controversial speech on the failings of multiculturalism within hours of one of the biggest anti-Islam rallies ever staged in Britain,” the Observer reported on page 1 on 6 February 2011. In the 11th paragraph of a 23-paragraph story, the Observer described the conduct of the English Defence League demonstrators: “Activists, some wearing balaclavas and others waving English flags, chanted ‘Muslim bombers off our streets’ and ‘Allah, Allah, who the fuck is Allah’.” The Observer is a Sunday newspaper in the Guardian group.

This connects with the point you made earlier, that the Prophet Muhammed cartoons were ‘designed’ to provoke, and you’ve mentioned ‘context’ a number of times. So does a lot depend on the perceived intent of the journalists and the newspaper in question? Is this ultimately about credibility and trust?

Yes, there is a huge difference. In the case of the cartoons they were clearly designed to offend. They wanted to unveil what had previously not been unveiled because Muslims deemed the very act of drawing an image of Prophet Muhammad to be offensive. The people who did it knew that this was something that offended Muslims.

And the cartoons were commissioned and curated by the newspaper.

Exactly. Whereas in the Observer case, it was one element in it, describing the bigotry and virulence of the people who were in that demonstration, and I think for readers of the Observer who read it, it provided an important description of who these people were and what sort of message they were sending out, and I think that’s a good thing. If those words had been in a headline, if those words had been in a drop quote or something, that would have given greater prominence to it and would have been more problematic.

Because it might lead to the impression that the newspaper was intending to provoke…

Yes, trumpeting it, or something. But the newspaper was just reporting what happened. And as far as I know there was no reaction. Maybe they just read it and said, this is a report on a pretty sad bunch of individuals who were saying something offensive, but they weren’t going to rise to the bait.

I suppose it would be good news for the media if people are sophisticated enough to understand the difference between portrayal and advocacy, and not shoot the messenger. 

It’s not the words that are the problem, but the context in which they appear.