Washington on Friday condemned caricatures in European newspapers of the Prophet Mohammad, siding with Muslims who are outraged that the publications put press freedom over respect for religion. . . .
"These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims," State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said in answer to a question. "We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable."
"We call for tolerance and respect for all communities for their religious beliefs and practices," he added. . . .
A longer version also includes this quote:
"Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images or any other religious belief," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
A Reason Online piece links to the shorter version, and condemns it as "a craven condemnation of an affair that is none of their business."
I'm glad to say, though, that the State Department response was a good deal more assertively pro-free-speech than the Reuters account suggests. I couldn't find the Kurtis Cooper statement, but here's the relevant excerpt from the Sean McCormack press briefing:
QUESTION: Yes? Can you say anything about a U.S. response or a U.S. reaction to this uproar in Europe over the Prophet Muhammad pictures? Do you have any reaction to it? Are you concerned that the violence is going to spread and make everything just --
MR. MCCORMACK: I haven't seen any — first of all, this is matter of fact. I haven't seen it. I have seen a lot of protests. I've seen a great deal of distress expressed by Muslims across the globe. The Muslims around the world have expressed the fact that they are outraged and that they take great offense at the images that were printed in the Danish newspaper, as well as in other newspapers around the world.
Our response is to say that while we certainly don't agree with, support, or in some cases, we condemn the views that are aired in public that are published in media organizations around the world, we, at the same time, defend the right of those individuals to express their views. For us, freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy and it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend and we will continue to do so. That said, there are other aspects to democracy, our democracy — democracies around the world — and that is to promote understanding, to promote respect for minority rights, to try to appreciate the differences that may exist among us.
We believe, for example in our country, that people from different religious backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, national backgrounds add to our strength as a country. And it is important to recognize and appreciate those differences. And it is also important to protect the rights of individuals and the media to express a point of view concerning various subjects. So while we share the offense that Muslims have taken at these images, we at the same time vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view. We may — like I said, we may not agree with those points of view, we may condemn those points of view but we respect and emphasize the importance that those individuals have the right to express those points of view.
For example — and on the particular cartoon that was published — I know the Prime Minister of Denmark has talked about his, I know that the newspaper that originally printed it has apologized, so they have addressed this particular issue. So we would urge all parties to exercise the maximum degree of understanding, the maximum degree of tolerance when they talk about this issue. And we would urge dialogue, not violence. And that also those that might take offense at these images that have been published, when they see similar views or images that could be perceived as anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic, that they speak out with equal vigor against those images.
QUESTION: That the Muslims speak out with equal vigor when they see — that's what you're asking?
MR. MCCORMACK: We would — we believe that it is an important principle that peoples around the world encourage dialogue, not violence; dialogue, not misunderstanding and that when you see an image that is offensive to another particular group, to speak out against that. Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images or any other religious belief. We have to remember and respect the deeply held beliefs of those who have different beliefs from us. But it is important that we also support the rights of individuals to express their freely held views.
QUESTION: So basically you're just hoping that it doesn't — I'm sorry I misspoke when I said there was violence, I meant uproar. Your bottom line is that both sides have the right to do exactly as they're doing and you just hope it doesn't get worse?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I --
QUESTION: You just hope it doesn't escalate.
MR. MCCORMACK: I gave a pretty long answer, so --
QUESTION: You did. I'm trying to sum it up for you. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: A couple of years ago, I think it was a couple of years ago when, I think it was the Syrians and the Lebanese were introducing this documentary about the Jews — or it was the Egyptians — this Administration spoke out very strongly about that and called it offensive, said it was --
MR. MCCORMACK: I just said that the images were offensive; we found them offensive.
QUESTION: Well, no you said that you understand that the Muslims found them offensive, but --
MR. MCCORMACK: I'm saying now, we find them offensive. And we certainly understand why Muslims would find these images offensive.
QUESTION: One word is puzzling me in this, Sean, and that's the use of the word "unacceptable" and "not acceptable," exactly what that implies. I mean, it's not quite obvious that you find the images offensive. When you say "unacceptable," it applies some sort of action against the people who perpetrate those images.
MR. MCCORMACK: No. I think I made it very clear that our defense of freedom of expression and the ability of individuals and media organizations to engage in free expression is forthright and it is strong, you know. This is — our First Amendment rights, the freedom of expression, are some of the most strongly held and dearly held views that we have here in America. And certainly nothing that I said, I would hope, would imply any diminution of that support.
QUESTION: It's just the one word "unacceptable," I'm just wondering if that implied any action, you know. But it doesn't you say?
MR. MCCORMACK: No.
MR. MCCORMACK: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you caution America media against publishing those cartoons?
MR. MCCORMACK: That's for you and your editors to decide, and that's not for the government. We don't own the printing presses.
QUESTION: Sean, these cartoons first surfaced in late September and it's following this recent election with the Palestinian Authority. The EU mission was attacked or held, in effect, by Hamas yesterday near Gaza City. And the tact of some of these European newspapers, again, are to re-publish — these cartoons. Is the election mood — is this what is possibly fueling this and what is our media response to this, a la, what Katherine Hughes may or may not do versus international State Department and government media to the Muslim world, including Indonesia, Asia, and the Middle East?
MR. MCCORMACK: I don't think your colleagues really want me to repeat the long answer that I gave to Teri, so I'd refer you to that answer.
QUESTION: All right.
MR. MCCORMACK: Yes, George.
QUESTION: Getting back to your next question, nobody doubts the right of newspapers, et cetera, to print such drawings as appeared in Europe, but is it the responsible thing to do — or is it — or would it be irresponsible to do what the European newspapers did because of the sensitivities involved?
MR. MCCORMACK: George, we, as a Government, have made our views known on the question of these images. We find them offensive. We understand why others may find them offensive. We have urged tolerance and understanding. That — all of that said, the media organizations are going to have to make their own decisions concerning what is printed, George. This is — it's not for the U.S. Government to dictate what is printed.
QUESTION: You're not dictating — everybody knows you can't order people not to --
MR. MCCORMACK: Right.
QUESTION: — print this or that, but you might have on your hands the same kind of problem that the Europeans find --
MR. MCCORMACK: You're right, you're right.
QUESTION: — now. So, I just thought that there might be a word or two saying — you know, that — you know, you should do your best not to incite people because this — you're dealing with deeply-held beliefs.
MR. MCCORMACK: You're right. You're right. You are dealing with deeply-held beliefs and certainly, we have talked about the importance of urging tolerance and appreciating differences and to respect the fact that many of — millions and millions of people around the world would find these images — these particular images offensive. But whether or not American media chooses to reproduce those images is a question for them, for them alone to answer, not for us.
Sounds to me like McCormack, at least, is repeatedly stressing that the cartoons ought to be protected from governmental punishment, but is simply exercising the government's right to speak out against them. Naturally, the Reuters story could only quote a small part of the comments, but it's unfortunate that the quoted excerpt seemed to understate the State Department's expressions of support for free speech.
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