Norwegian journalist Odd Isungset stresses the importance of not letting violence have the last word.
Odd Isungset is a leading investigative journalist in Norway. His 2010 book, Who Shot William Nygaard? (2010) probed the unsolved attempted murder of William Nygaard, publisher of the Norwegian edition of Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses, prompting the police to reopen the case. He also made a documentary on the violence following the Prophet Mohammed cartoons publication. He is a former chairman of Norway’s Press Complaints Commission. Cherian George interviewed him in Bali on 8 November 2013.
Norway is well known for being a deeply liberal and tolerant society. But in recent years there have been some unpleasant shocks to the system. There was the mass shooting, and before that the spillover from the Prophet Mohammed cartoon case. What are some of the lessons the media have drawn from these incidents?
The Behring Breivik case was a complete shock to everybody, I think. We could never have imagined things like this happening in Norway. This was a challenge for Norwegian society. The media dealt with it quite well. But it was a strange situation – this was a national catastrophe, so for a long time we did not ask unpleasant questions.
Right-wing anti-immigration extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 in his shooting rampage on 22 July 2011 – Photo: Facebook.
Norwegian publisher William Nygaard was one of the victims of the Ayatullah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwah against Salman Rushdie. In 1993, he was shot three times outside his home in Oslo. He survived and remains an advocate for free speech. In 2013, he was elected president of the Norwegian chapter of International PEN – Photo: Wikimedia.
It was an emotional moment, and there had to be a time for healing?
Yes. So, for many weeks there was only the healing side. The foreign media asked some of the unpleasant questions, like why didn’t the police act in another way; or what kind of society can allow things like this to happen without being prepared. Later on, there was a commission and they criticised the police.
The other cases were really something else. The attempted assassination 20 years ago of Salman Rushdie’s publisher, the attack on William Nygaard – that was a political case. Somebody had stated a death sentence in Iran, somebody had put up a bounty of 2 million kroner for hunting the novelist or his publisher or his translator. When this happened, this was not just one man’s work, we know there were at least two persons behind this, acting out a terror attack from abroad, as far as I can see.
The police failed completely and from my point of view – I have spent a lot of time investigating that case – I also think the journalists failed, because nobody was digging into this and this case is still unsolved.
I think it is really important to look back at cases like that – what happened, what was this about. My answer is that somebody was misusing the people’s religious feelings. Ayatullah Khomeini stated the fatwah in order to create a picture of a huge enemy in the Western world, and his goal was to keep Iran together, to stay in power.
I think we can find the same pattern when it comes to the Mohammed cartoons. Somebody was misusing religious feelings. Somebody from countries where demonstrations are forbidden all of a sudden allowed people to demonstrate.
In the case of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons, how did the controversy cross the border from Denmark to Norway?
The strange thing about the cartoons is that they were published three, four months before the actions started to happen. In the meantime, they had been published in Egypt, for instance, they had been published in many places without creating reactions.
There was a political debate in Denmark regarding the conditions for migrants, and some of the Muslim society wanted to have a meeting about this with the prime minister, and he refused to meet them, and then they started a campaign. And this campaign grew and all of a sudden there were attacks on Danish embassies and so on.
And there was one specific Norwegian newspaper that wrote about this. The newspaper is called Magazinet. On the front page there was an interview with two Norwegian cartoonists, and they said they didn’t dare to make cartoons of Mohammed. In order to illustrate this, they made a facsimile of the cartoons on an inside page. This is a very small newspaper, run by Christians who are quite Israel-friendly, but when you look at the contents, this could have been done by any newspaper in Norway.
All of the sudden, this created a reaction, he received death threats, he had to have security, and the demonstrations against the Norwegian embassies and also against Norwegian firms abroad started to grow, especially in Damascus, where they burned down the Norwegian embassy. But it also spread to Afghanistan, where there were Norwegian soldiers; and there were some demonstrations in Iran. And all this created a situation of fear in Norway. People were frightened.
Violence was used and those who were violent won in the first round. It is important not to let people who use violence win. We have to answer this in the long term.
What do you mean when you say they won in the first round?
Because they created fear. In Norway, we had a law on blasphemy, but this law hasn’t been used since the ’30s. When they created this situation of fear, lots of people wanted to strengthen the law on blasphemy. That was a reaction of panic, I think. It almost turned to go the wrong way. The minister of foreign affairs wrote a letter to the ambassadors in the Muslim countries stating a kind of apology for hurting religious feelings.
You feel that it would have been a mistake to respond by strengthening the blasphemy law. What about on the ethical side? Did these incidents make the Norwegian press more self-reflective, and feel that maybe although Norwegians are not too concerned about criticism of Christianity, there are other faiths that treat their religions as a much deeper part of their identity, and maybe you have to be sensitive about that?
Yes, maybe that was a good side of the reflections; thinking about religious feelings as something we have to respect. Religious feelings are very different, and a very important part of freedom of expression is also freedom of religion. In one way, that reflection was good.
But in another way that reflection created a kind of self-censorship. So a very strange situation occurred, where we were discussing these cartoons that nobody had seen and nobody dared to reprint. When we republished it like we did in our documentary, one and a half years later, lots of people said, wow, was it like this – they could see it wasn’t harmful at all.
To Norwegian eyes.
Of course, I know that these cartoons could hurt somebody’s religious feelings, but what created this crisis was that some of the imams from Denmark, they spread some other cartoons, which wasn’t a part of this, which was much more offensive.
There was one with a pig…
Ya. And this showed us something about how fast this can spread and how this can be misused by people in power. On the other hand, I can understand and I respect that people have their religious feelings and that some people might be offended by this.
You’ve said that those who respond in a violent way win the first round, but in the long term, the issue needs to be revisited. And you did a documentary about this to analyse the case more deeply. What is the main point of the documentary?
I think the main point was to give the audience a chance to see what this was about and to reflect on it. It was broadcast on the largest nationwide commercial TV in Norway. We had quite a lot of viewers. Some of the leaders from the Muslim societies – some of them wrote to me before we broadcast and said don’t – but afterwards they said this was quite balanced and they had no problems with this.
We had some security measures, but everything was very calm.
One key point you wanted to make was that this was a case of an issue being politicised by a small number of political players; it is not really the response of the entire Muslim community, nor was it an attack on the entire Muslim community.
Ya. But the sad thing about this is that the religious leaders have misused this. Looking at Syria then, the images you can see in the documentary, where the police and firemen just allowed them to set the embassy on fire.
In the next round, it creates a hate speech against Muslims in general. When someone answers with violence, it creates a picture among many people in the Western world, defining all Muslims as the same – as people who have low tolerance and who are violent. And that is of course not true. And that is one of the sad things that following these two cases, the Rushdie case and the Mohammed cartoons – it creates a kind of hate speech in the next round.
If something like this were to happen again, there are some who say that, given how explosive and uncontrollable the initial reaction is, just on public order grounds, there is an argument for censoring or self-censoring at least a limited period to let things calm down. Would you agree with that?
Well it depends on the situation. During the cartoon crisis, it was correct not to reprint for a short period. But it would be completely incorrect to live with this, without doing this kind of analysis afterwards and showing people what it was about. So, ya, I think so.
On the other hand, I’m not sure if this situation is going to come up again. We don’t know. After this, there have been very many situations where people provocate much more than the cartoons did. Like Terry Jones burning a Koran, the Geert Wilders thing in the Netherlands, they do things that are much more provocative. Compared with the cartoons or the Salman Rushdie case, they have no grounds for doing this. That’s also very important. The reason why Jyllands-Posten asked people to draw these cartoons was relevant.
It was part of a political debate.
Ya, and the same with Salman Rushdie’s novel. It was great art. At the same time, this was a book that was really critical of Western society. It’s important for us to find out which of these actions we need to defend as hard as we can.
Because they have artistic or intellectual merit.
Yes. But the burning of the Koran was done in order to provocate. It didn’t succeed. And I think that’s good. We are moving forward. People can see that it was done only to provocate, and if we don’t reply, then he has not succeeded. So I think we are moving.
Within Norway, you were a member of the Press Complaints Commission. What was its view?
There was a complaint regarding the cartoons to the Press Complaints Commission. There is a paragraph in the Norwegian code of ethics stating that we should show respect for persons and for beliefs, but that complaint was not upheld. Instead, the Press Complaints Commission stated that cartoons are an important part of freedom of expression.
The Press Complaints Commission is functioning quite well, so it has a strong position in Norwegian society. We have almost no cases in court. Most of the complaints come the Press Complaints Commission.
With Norway becoming less homogeneous because of immigration, is that difficult for media to deal with?
Of course there are a lot of challenges. We recently had an episode of an asylum seeker killing three people on a bus. So being a more multi-ethnic society gives us some challenges.
When I look back at the journalistic view on this, in the beginning, some 20 years ago, we were very afraid of writing negative articles about immigrants. Even when they did criminal acts, we didn’t write much about it, because we thought that could create racism. So for a long time we didn’t look at all at the bad sides. We didn’t do anything about female circumcision, we didn’t do anything about arranged marriage – we didn’t go into those negative sides for a very long time.
And then in the beginning of 2000s, journalists started to dig into that. Now I think it is too much on the other side. Nowadays everybody writes, we can see on in the statistics that we have an overrepresentation in jail, in different types of crime, and so on. Now the media is always writing that this was done by a person coming from here and there – kind of stigmatising.
So you feel you still haven’t found the right balance?
Yes, I think that is always developing. It is a never ending process. When we discuss ethics, we have internal ethics debates, which is maybe the most important, more important than the Press Complaints Commission, to always have these debates within every newspaper, within every TV station, within every radio station, to discuss how far can they go, was this fair, was this not fair.
Also as a result of all of them being a member of the press association, if they receive a complaint, and the Press Complaints Commission says that you have broken the code, nobody likes that. The result of that is internal debates. At the same time, the code of ethics is revised quite often, because society is changing. We are part of society, society is changing and journalism is changing.