Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘press freedom’

By their scandals you shall know them

I’ve always been impressed by German political scandals. More generally, I think that the quality of political scandals is an excellent indicator of the general health of a country’s political culture. More than 20 years ago I was in Germany during the Briefbogenaffäre, the “letterhead affair”, when the business minister and deputy chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign after having used his department’s letterhead to tout a really banal business idea of his cousin (selling plastic chips to be used instead of one-mark coins to stick into supermarket trolleys as deposit), calling it a “pfiffige Idee” (clever idea). At the time I thought the whole thing seemed ridiculous, and simultaneously I was impressed at a political culture capable of being genuinely shocked by minor corruption. You couldn’t imagine an Italian minister being forced to resign over something like that.

Now there’s a new scandal, and Germany has again showed itself to be a country that takes democratic values seriously. About a week ago the blog netzpolitik.org, a major organ for German journalism about issues of internet freedom and privacy, received notification that the Generalbundesanwalt (GBA — basically, attorney general) that they were officially being investigated under suspicion of treason, for having published secret documents of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV — the “Federal Agency for Defense of the Constitution”, the somewhat Orwellian name that Germany has bestowed on its internal secret police) relating to its new plans for mass internet surveillance with a special secret budget. The letter says that the investigation was provoked by a criminal complaint issued by the Verfassungsschutz.

What happened next was surprising. The Verfassungsschutz and the GBA were both strongly criticised in the press, with accusations that they were trying to stifle public criticism. Comparisons were drawn to the 1962 Spiegel Affair, a crucial event in postwar German history, where the government imprisoned journalists who had revealed secret documents showing weaknesses in German military preparedness, but was then forced to back down. Then the circular firing squad began. The justice minister criticised the decision as improper. The GBA office said they were obliged to act on the complaint from the BfV. The BfV said they only reported the facts to the GBA, they had no responsibility for the criminal investigation. Then the GBA fired back at the justice minister, saying his comments were an “intolerable interference” in the independence of the judicial system. Whereupon the justice minister fired him and had the investigation stopped.

It’s hard to imagine any important political or judicial figure in the UK or US losing his job because he was seen as being too aggressive in protecting state secrets against press freedom.

Spitting on the corpse

The great political cartoonist Joe Sacco has written a thoughtful — and thought-provoking — cartoon-essay about “the limits of satire” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I can’t disagree with a lot of what he says, but I find his choice to say some of them now weirdly offensive, in exactly the way that much of Charlie Hebdo was offensive, and so undermining the point that he seems to be making.

Sacco writes, over a background of a hillside covered with crosses made of fountain pens — the cartoonist’s Calvary?

Though tweaking the noses of Muslims might be as permissible as it is now believed to be dangerous, it has never struck me as anything other than a vapid way to use the pen.

Implied is that everyone must agree that CH has been tweaking the noses of Muslims. That is, making pointless and puerile attacks that publicly shame people who are socially weak. One could claim that, but I think many people would disagree. I do, and I believe that most of the Charlie Hebdo staff would. Which suggests that this might not be the best time to criticise them, when some have just been murdered, and the rest are in shock, and unable to defend themselves.

Why do so many people, most of whom I’m sure never commented on Charlie Hebdo before, feel incapable of publicly saying, “It’s a terrible crime, and a threat to everyone’s sense of security and freedom of expression,” without needing to pair it immediately with a disclaimer “I never liked them, and I object to their approach to journalism and cartooning and politics and life in general.” Can’t it wait, at least until the survivors are back on their feet? No one goes to a funeral and feels obliged to say to the widow, “Yes, heart attacks are terrible, but he really was a shitty colleague, I found him dull, and he always smelled kind of bad.”

Sacco then proceeds to some intentionally offensive drawings of his own: One of a black man with a banana falling out of a tree, the other of a “Jew counting his money in the entrails of the working class.” He then asks, “And if you can take the ‘joke’ now, would it have been as funny in 1933?” Imagine that at Sacco’s death (after, one hopes, a long and happy life) people pull out these images and reprint them with comments like “Talented cartoonist. Shame he was such a racist and antisemite.” This would be terribly unfair, because it ignores the context in which it was written. But Sacco seems to be arguing that the only context that matters is the political context, in which Muslims are an oppressed minority in Europe, and relatively powerless in world affairs. It’s a complex problem, and I can’t fault Sacco for having his say on it, but it arouses in me a sense of unfairness when people

My personal reaction? The sort of comedy that CH engages in, like the underground comics tradition in the US that started in the 1960s — and still being pursued by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and others — has never been exactly to my taste, but I have never felt any urge to dissociate myself from it. The job of caricature is to reduce humans to their common bodily level, and show how ridiculous we all are, the highest and the lowest. It can serve the purposes of racist marginalisation, and it can serve important democratic principles. If Mohammed is caricatured, is he a representative of the oppressed Muslims in the Paris banlieu, or is he another big boss, needing to be taken down a peg? It’s a subtle argument, but I admire those willing to risk crossing the line, in order to explore where the line is, or if there should be any line at all.

An observation: Twice in the past few days Andrew Sullivan has reprinted reader comments or tweets that showed an outrageous CH cover, with a comment of the sort, “Yes, no one should have murdered them. But can’t we agree that they’re obviously a pack of racists? Just look at this outrageous example.” And each one of these posts got updated with a comment from a reader who actually knew the political context, and could point out that the cartoon was not racist in intent, but was illustrating an argument over the position of racial minorities in France. For example, a caricature of Justice minister Christiane Taubira (a black woman) as an ape was a response to racist comments by the right wing, including throwing bananas at her.

Is it a positive thing to concretise the racism of others in an unforgettable image? I think so, but it’s debatable. It’s a debate worth having, which is why I admire the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and their ilk.

“Legal reasons”

The British press is legally somewhat more hemmed in than the US press, both by law (for instance, the and various arbitrary gag orders) and the threat of libel suits. (Fun fact: The truth defence against libel charges was eliminated in 1606 — at least as regards the sovereign, unpleasant claims are likely to be more damaging if they are true than if they are lies. An exception was made for “good motives” in 1792, but for the public interest in 1843. A more general substantial truth defence was reinstated last month.)

This leads us to this weekend’s blockbuster news. The Guardian has reported that the Mail on Sunday has reported

David Cameron has held crisis talks at Downing Street after being told of allegations of a sensational love affair which has potentially significant political implications for him.

For legal reasons, the Mail on Sunday cannot disclose the identities of the people involved or any details of the relationship – even its duration – other than that they are middle-aged figures. The affair has now concluded.

Hilarious! Like a Mad-Lib sketch for a political sex scandal. Details presumably to follow soon on Twitter.

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