Danish law prohibits hate speech, so why isn't it being invoked, asks Firas Al-Atraqchi
When Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the world, specifically targeting Muslim ears, that his government could not get involved in freedoms of the press because no local laws were broken, he may have been, shall we say, disingenuous.
"The government can in no way influence the media. And the Danish government and the Danish nation as such cannot be held responsible for what is published in independent media," Fogh Rasmussen said.
His line of defence was that the leading Danish daily Jyllands-Posten had not been intending to insult Muslims when it published the drawings that have now become all too infamous.
However, in 1972 Denmark became a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which is monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The latter's charter states:
"Considering that the Charter of the United Nations is based on the principles of the dignity and equality inherent in all human beings, and that all Member States have pledged themselves to take joint and separate action, in co-operation with the Organization, for the achievement of one of the purposes of the United Nations which is to promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion."
Muslims in Denmark, and now elsewhere, say the cartoons first published on 30 September were disrespectful for depicting the Prophet Muhammad and for equating him with terrorism.
Between September and January, when the controversy spread, Muslim diplomats and advocacy groups tried to get the Danish government to intervene, but it insisted that it would break anti- censorship laws if it did so.
Indeed, section 77 (Freedom of Speech) of the Danish constitution states:
"Any person shall be entitled to publish his thoughts in printing, in writing, and in speech, provided that he may be held answerable in a court of justice. Censorship and other preventive measures shall never again be introduced."
However, the move against censorship and assuring of freedoms of speech are counterbalanced by the Danish Penal Code itself.
Section 266b of the Danish Penal code prohibits racist incitement, hate speech, and discrimination based on race. This existed as law since 1939.
After signing on to CERD, however, Denmark instituted a series of amendments, the latest coming in a Parliament amendment in 1995.
Concerning hate speech, Section 266b now states:
"Any person who, publicly or with the intent of propagating them to a wider circle, makes statements or any other communication by which a group of persons is threatened, insulted or degraded on account of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin, or creed, shall be liable to a fine, simple detention or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years."
In October, Danish Muslims said they were insulted by the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. However, there was no official reprimand.
Furthermore, a report issued by the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia in 2004 stated that Section 266b covers oral and written expressions, pictures, caricatures and also symbolic acts or objects.
"Case law inter alia shows that burning crosses are covered by the provision. Regarding Nazi or neo- Nazi symbols case law shows that the courts have dealt mainly with the use of the swastika as a violation of section 266b."
And the Danish government has acted on hate speech by invoking its Penal Code and anti-racism legislature.
In early October, the website of Louise Frevert, a member of the Danish People's Party and a member of parliament, hosted articles declaring among other things that Danish Muslims believe it is their inherent right to rape native Danish women.
Frevert was also said to have written a document in 2004 alleging that Muslims in Denmark had formulated secret plans to take over the country.
The Muslim community complained and Rasmussen stepped in saying "What has been reproduced is an unacceptable attitude".
The articles on the website were quickly removed.
However, the fact the articles appeared in the first place points to a worrying set of circumstances which may not bode well for minorities in Scandinavia.
Many European human rights and anti-racism advocates are worried Denmark may slip down the slope of 19th century anti-Semitism which culminated in the despicable wholesale eradication of the Jewish peoples.
So too, other European countries.
In addition to the racism taint, five Danish troops were found guilty of torture and abuse in Iraq (committed in 2004) but not sentenced.
Muslims and media advocacy groups unsurprisingly continue to complain of Danish double-standards.
An article published by The Independent earlier this week revealed that the same Danish newspaper now under the public eye had refused to publish cartoons depicting Jesus Christ in an unfavourable light in 2003.
The Independent quoted Jyllands-Posten Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, as saying: "I don't think Jyllands- Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them."
The Danish government is calling for dialogue in what it says is a misunderstanding and ignorance. However, that has failed to save Danish products from the grinder.
True, any and all acts of violence committed by Arabs and Muslims against the cartoon depictions (or any other reason) are reprehensible, immature and must be punished in the strictest interpretation of the law.
However, that does not condone Danish complicity in the affair.
And boycotts are not entirely uncivilized either. Denmark has a racist undercurrent it must overcome rather than hold candle-light vigils in Copenhagen.
Sanctions against the Apartheid government of South Africa eventually worked.
* The writer is a freelance journalist specialised in Middle East issues