On 26 September Berlin´s Deutsche Oper cancelled the performances of Hans Neuenfels’ production of Mozart´s 1781 opera Idomeneo, right, because of a police tip-off that the show could incur Muslim displeasure. Despite speculation that the opera will be rescheduled with extra security measures the action has led to renewed concern in the West that fundamentalism and the threat of violence has led to increased self censorship and is threatening one of our most valued fundamental rights – freedom of expression. (10-NOV-06)

Report by Index on Censorship´s Hayley Dixon.

The cancellation comes just weeks after the backlash against Pope Benedict XVI following his comments on Islam´s history of violence, as recorded in 14th Century crusaders´ texts. And whilst journalist and author Robert Redeker and his family remain in hiding after death threats were issued against him for his op-ed piece “Facing Fundamentalist Intimidation: What Should the Free World Do?” for the French newspaper Le Figaro. This latest clash between art and religious sensibilities comes less than one year after the fury over the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, first published by  Jyllands-Posten. The backlash against the cartoons, and the protests they occasioned, led to the death of roughly 50 people. Despite speculation that the opera will be rescheduled with extra security measures the action has led to widespread concern in the West that fundamentalism and the threat of violence has led to increased self censorship and is threatening one of our most valued fundamental rights – freedom of expression.
-Self-censorship out of fear is intolerable
The production has caused controversy because, in Neuenfels´ modern remake, King Idomeneo holds up the severed heads of Poseidon, Jesus, Buddha and the Prophet Mohammed. Although the scene is undoubtedly critical of religion it is in no way specifically critical of, or hostile toward, Islam. Kirsten Harms, the opera house”s chief director, cancelled the production because of a tip-off from Berlin police, who received an anonymous threat that was believed to be Islamist in nature. Berlin´s top security official recommended that either the scene was cut or the opera cancelled, as safety could not be assured in the event of violent protest, leading to Harms´ claim that “we believe that needs to be taken very seriously and hope for your support”. The condemnation of the decision has been fairly unanimous in the Western media, with some Muslim groups also denouncing the decision. But it seems that it is not just the media that was struck by the decision to abandon the opera before any real protest took place; the cancellation even led German Chancellor Angela Merkel to warn that “self-censorship out of fear is not tolerable”.

US publisher abandons book about Islam
But the Deutsche Oper is certainly not alone its fear of Islamic backlash: US-based Looseleaf Law Publications decided at the end of September to cancel the November publication of psychoanalyst Dr Nancy Kobrin´s book The Sheikh´s New Cloth: the Naked Truth about Islamic Suicide Terrorism . The publication of the book, which deals with issues such as “the normalisation of cruelty and child abuse” and “the degradation of women in the Islamic world and how that is a crucial factor in suicide terrorism”, was abruptly cancelled because Looseleaf feared for the safety of their staff. Kobrin claims that when notifying her of the cancellation, a vice president of Looseleaf, Mary Loughrey, specifically mentioned the fear of Muslim reaction and the calls for the assassination of the Pope after his comments on Islam.

“Think thrice, before you write”
But it is important to remember that it is not just the actions of Muslim fundamentalists that are promoting an atmosphere of fear and self-restriction in the Western media. On 7 October Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was brutally murdered outside her home (see Index on Censorship, 4/06). Politkovskaya, who wrote for Novaya Gazeta , was one of Putin’s biggest critics and one of 13 dissenting journalists to be assassinated in the Russian Federation since Putin came to power in 1999. Due to strict restrictions on Russian media, Politkovskaya, who reported tirelessly on the situation in the Chechen Republic, was one of the few independent voices who refused to be silenced through intimidation. Her death has provided a serious blow to the already fragile independent media in the Russian Federation. Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense foundation, has warned that “the result of Anna´s death is simple… every journalist will now practice self-censorship: think thrice, before you write”.

Killer’s impunity creates climate of fear
The fears sparked by the assassination of Politkovskaya echo fears still prevalent in Northern Ireland in spite of the peace protest and the IRA ceasefire. Five years after his murder the killers of Martin O’Hagan remain at large, despite published evidence pointing toward a loyalist paramilitary gang, leading the local NUJ to question why the killers have not been brought to justice and the sincerity of the efforts of the local police force. This apparent impunity has led to an increase in self- censorship in the region and an attitude of both fear and lawlessness; the number of journalists working under death threats has quadruped since the murder in 2001. Twelve journalists have been issued with death threats this year alone. Self-censorship is practised because, as the police have failed to prosecute O’Hagan’s killers, it is feared that other threats to freedom of expression, and journalists’ personal safety, will go unpunished.

A poignant reminder
Self-censorship is a difficult to define. How do you measure a silence, and how do you know that silence exists? Post 9/11 the threat of fundamentalism has been taken much more seriously, but in the midst of a war against an unseen enemy the balance between patriotism, national security and free speech has proved difficult to maintain. Even in the home of the first amendment journalists and academics that ignored the prevailing sentiment have faced, among other issues, dismissal, withdrawal of their work and public censure. The “patriotic syndrome” that ensued following the World Trade Center atttacks has created an atmosphere of self-restriction, particularly in the US, an immediate reaction to the event that is refusing to fade in the name of political correctness. But as the outright cancellation of a work of art has brought the issue back into the limelight the constant threat to freedom of speech is becoming increasing discernable.

-Until legitimate criticism is accepted, self-censorship will continue
The cancellation of Idomeneo has reminded the Western media that even in the “free” world we are all too often subjected to violence and intimidation. It also reminds us that free expression and voices of dissent are essential to democracy’s survival and improvement. The most united threat to freedom of speech in the West is perceived as coming from the Muslim world. But in the current climate of anti-Islamic sentiment it is important not to lose sight of the fact that it is not only Muslims perpetuating violence, and that the fear taking hold of the Western media also comes from social, political, economic and cultural pressures. Until legitimate criticism of Islam is accepted by fundamentalist groups, and voices of opposition are accepted by repressive governments, the trend of self-censorship will only continue. Until journalists are protected against intimidation, repression and murder, the West will never cultivate a fully free and objective media.

-´Free world´ journalists need protection. Cfr. Politkovskaya and O´Hagan
The situation in Germany has led people all over the world to encourage uninhibited speech and as Fleming Rose of Jyllands-Posten points out, giving in to pressure, as the Deutsche Oper did, “plays into the hands of the radicals… you are telling them “your tactics are working”. The death of Politkovskaya and the situation in Northern Ireland after the murder of O´Hagan provide serious reminders that even “free” world journalists still urgently need to be protected, irrespective of the nature of the threat against them. The eradication of a climate where self-censorship is thought to be needed is essential, as Salman Rushdie pointed out over a decade ago: “if writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history´s greatest and most abject abdications”.

The above quote was taken from Salman Rushdie from ´Outside the Whale´ in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticisms 1981-1991 (Granta Books, London, 1992). To read Rushdie´s on free speech, see Open Democracy

Further reading:
Press Gazette
Jewish Press
International Herald Tribune

Many media activist groups are continually working toward a safe and unrestricted media worldwide – these include Reporters sans Frontieres and the Committee to Protect Journalists