Denmark: Authors’ manifesto for free speech re-opens self-censorship debate

25 March 2013

“Danish artists have made censorship into something positive,” claimed a newspaper commentator. In 2010, a study pointed to a very real problem with self-censorship in Danish cultural life, when it comes to religious subjects. And when an author recently published a manifesto in defense of unlimited freedom of expression, only 14 other Danish authors were ready to sign it.


The manifesto was published in the national newspaper Politiken on 22 February 2013 as a reaction to an assassination attempt against the Danish free speech activist Lars Hedegaard on 5 February 2013. A gunman tried to shoot the Danish writer and critic of Islam, but missed, and fled after a scuffle with his intended victim. Later the same day Lars Hedegaard told The Associated Press he was shaken but not physically injured in the attack at his Copenhagen home.

Lars Hedegaard, 70, heads a group, Free Press Society, that claims press freedom is under threat from Islam. He is also among the publishers of a weekly anti-Islam newsletter. Lars Hedegaard has expressed support for a range of outspoken Islam critics in Europe, including Swedish artist Lars Vilks and Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders. So far the gunman has not been found, and no one knows yet what his underlying motives were for wanting to kill Lars Hedegaard.

Right to disagree
The conclusion of the manifesto by 15 authors reads: “We will never compromise on the view that any peaceful and sustainable community starts with that we recognise each other’s right to disagree — and that this community will only survive because we have the courage to defend this right, also on own behalf.”

The signatories of the manifesto were, apart from Birgithe Kosovic, who took the initiative, the authors Elsebeth Egholm, Nis Jakob, Ulrikka Strandbygaard, Niels Brunse, Henrik Dahl, Rune T. Kidde, Nicolaj Stochholm, Erling Jepsen, Kim Leine, Inge Pedersen, Bente Scavenius, Alen Meskovic, Sven Holm, and Martin Sundstrøm.

The manifesto was illustrated in Politiken’s Internet-version, but not in the paper version, with a drawing by Per Marquard Otzen that shows a person sticking out his tongue at a pantheon of gods and prophets, including Jesus, Buddha, Ganesh, Odin, Anubis and… could it be Mohammed there in the back? — if so, then this is the first Muhammad depiction printed in Politiken since Editor-in-Chief Tøger Seidefaden’s official apology to an Arab lawyer in 2010 for having reprinted Kurt Westergaard’s Muhammad drawing from Jyllands-Posten in 2006.

Critics: ‘They go too far’
According to the authors of the manifesto it should be possible to speak about anything without being threatened. But this is to go too far, says critics.

Birgithe Kosovic explained to Politiken: “It is about the foundation of this free, open society which we used to know ourselves in and say, ‘This is Denmark’. I just have to say no when I hear someone — for example the award-winning business woman Soulaima Gourani — saying that the state should not spend resources on protecting Lars Hedegaard, because when one has said the kind of things he has, then no one can guarantee for his safety.”

“In a democracy, the state has monopoly using force and exercise power. It will not bend to threats from neither the Mafia or Islamists, but guarantees everyone’s personal integrity. And not least everyone’s equal right to say what you think,” Birgithe Kosovic told Politiken.

Right not to be demonised
Janne Teller was one of the Danish authors who did not wish to sign the manifesto, although she agreed with much of it. She explained why:

“As far as I am concerned, the manifesto is an expression of the strange Danish tendency to exalt freedom of expression to a religion that trumps all other democratic freedoms, for example, the freedom to live on equal terms with everyone else in peace and harmony — which among other things includes the right to be free from being demonised as an individual or group.”

Therefore, one person’s right to express him- or herself must always be balanced in relation to the other person’s right not to be demonised, said Janne Teller:

“All hate campaigns and genocide started with the word. Therefore I can not agree that all views — for example pure hate speech or incitement to violence — necessarily always must be allowed to be expressed in public. For me, freedom of expression is a right ensuring that you are always allowed to criticise but not that you must always demonise” .

Self-censorship survey
The Danish weekly Weekendavisen commented the manifesto, and reminded its readers that seven years earlier another manifesto attracted signatures by 325 Danish authors. In December 2005 they published an open letter requesting “a better tone in the public debate,” saying that Danes needed to moderate their criticism of religious minorities.

The fact that author Birgithe Kosovic could only find 14 colleagues to sign the ‘Manifesto for freedom of expression’ was no surprise, according to Weekendavisen’s Søren Villemoes, who noted that the general attitude among Danish authors is that they do not like openly to admit that “it’s not very healthy for freedom of speech with all these recurring attempted murder of journalists, writers and artists.”

Looking back at the past seven years, Søren Villemoes described a pattern of increased self-censorship. In 2010, the Danish magazine A4 set out to investigate to which extent self-censorship prevailed among Danish artists and writers. The study, which had solid 654 respondents from the Danish cultural sector, showed that incidents of self-censorship and concerns about freedom of expression were a common phenomenon in cultural life. 47 percent considered freedom of expression being under threat, 29 percent indicated explicitly the ‘cartoon crisis’ from 2006 as the primary problem, and 12 percent told that they had experienced dropping a project in order to avoid offending religious feelings. Over half of all respondents were generally cautious of those same religious feelings when they worked.

Søren Villemoes would have expected a rebellion, or at least expressions of worry, as a reaction to the findings of the survey. “But that was not what happened,” he wrote: “On the contrary. Danish Writers Association President at the time, Lotte Garbers, said the study “created a false fear of Muslims and Islam in society, which we will not support. It blows things out of proportion. The kind of self-censorship that takes place is within the ethically and morally defensible,” she was quoted as saying then.

“Self-censorship thus was not a disturbing response to terrorism. It was not even regrettable. On the contrary! Instead what was happening reflected a sound ‘ethical and moral’ situation. Self-censorship was not a problem. It was a virtue,” commented Søren Villemoes, drawing a straight line from the 325 authors’ call for a nicer ‘tone’ in the debate over Garbers’ ‘virtuous self-censorship’ and to Kosovic’s cry for freedom of expression.

Politiken – 22 February 2013:
Fakta: Her er de 14 forfatteres manifest for ytringsfrihed
Efter attentatforsøget mod Lars Hedegaard forsvarer 14 forfattere den totale ytringsfrihed.

Politiken – 22 February 2013:
Manifest: Danske forfattere vil have total ytringsfrihed
Ifølge forfatterne bag manifestet skal det være muligt at ytre sig om alt uden at blive truet på livet. Forfatterne slår fast, at ytringsfriheden ikke kan gradbøjes. Men manifestet går for vidt, mener kritiker. Text by Kim Faber. Cartoon by Per Marquard Otzen – 23 March 2013:
Tidslinje over presset imod ytringsfriheden 2013

Ugebrevet A4 – 11 January 2010:
Massiv selvcensur i kulturlivet
Censuren er udbredt i dansk kulturliv. Det viser en undersøgelse blandt forfattere, billedkunstnere, galleriejere og museumsledere. Knap halvdelen mener, at ytringsfriheden er truet i Danmark. Hver ottende har droppet ’projekter’. Frygten for at krænke etniske og religiøse følelser fylder mest. By Allan Larsen

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