Except when South Park meets Islam

Neil Macdonald on the self-censoring of South Park.

We're all fierce free speechers in the news business, or at least we're supposed to be.

We're especially ferocious when somebody else is censoring something, as Comedy Central did last week with its South Park cartoon franchise.

South Park has a habit of ridiculing religions without mercy. Jesus downloads porn on the show, Buddha snorts coke, the Virgin Mary has anal bleeding, and Scientology is described as a "big fat global scam."

But last week, in Episode 201, Comedy Central drew the line. Satire, evidently, stops at Islam.

For some reason, the Prophet Muhammad appeared in that episode, wearing a bear costume. His name is repeated by the characters. In the end, though, Santa Claus pops out of the suit. Don't ask. The plot is silliness itself.

But the pious stalwarts behind the website took another view. They implicitly threatened the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with assassination for blasphemy.

They posted a photo of the dead Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, murdered for his criticism of Islam in 2004, saying it was a warning of "what will likely happen" to Stone and Parker.

Comedy Central caved instantly.

Bleeps and bars

Bleeps and censorship bars were installed on the cartoon. Then the episode was removed from the cable channel's website entirely.

South Park creators Matt Stone, left, and Trey Parker appear at a party to celebrate the 10th season of the animated Comedy Central television series in 2006. (Associated Press)

Steve Albani, a Comedy Central spokesman, had "no comment" on why the censorship was imposed.

When I asked whether Comedy Central intends similar censorship if other religious groups protest future satires of their faiths, he also had "no comment." When I asked if the way to have offensive material censored on Comedy Central is to issue a death threat, he had "no comment."

Not surprisingly, Comedy Central has been roasted in columns and editorials across the U.S.

Good, say I, and most journalists I know. Allowing fundamentalist thugs to suppress speech is antithetical to what we do. Journalists should stand arm in arm, every single one of us, with Parker and Stone.

But it didn't take much investigation for me to get past Albani and his "no comments" and discover some understandable resentment at Comedy Central over the beating they're taking in the mainstream media.

Journalism and satire

As they see it, Comedy Central is a provider of satire, not a journalistic outlet.

What's more, they went to the length of consulting federal security agencies before deciding to censor one of their own programs.

And, third, if journalistic outlets were uniformly fearless in challenging threats to their speech, their criticism of Comedy Central might not have such a rich hypocritical odour. Which it does.

Because when we in the news business are on the line of fire, under attack by people who use bullying or legal mechanisms to shut down coverage they don't like, our enthusiasm for free speech tends to wane.

The most obvious, but hardly the only, example is the saga of the Danish cartoons.

You'll recall that back in 2005, in reaction to murder and violence against European critics of Islam (the filmmaker van Gogh among them), the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad, some ridiculing him.

An editor's note accompanying the publications asserted that, in a democracy, people have to be prepared to put up even with insults to their religion.

But a great many Muslims disagreed. Eventually, rioting and anti-Western violence across the Muslim world killed more than 100 people. Bombs were planted in Europe. There were death threats against the cartoonists.


In covering the controversy, some newspapers reprinted the offending cartoons, both to lend context to the news stories about the riots and as a gesture of journalistic solidarity in the face of violence. But far more didn't.

In Canada, the Western Standard was just about alone in publishing the cartoons. In fact, much of the coverage in Canada and elsewhere in the West actually scolded the Danes.

Tony Burman, my old boss at the CBC and now the managing director of the Arab-owned Al-Jazeera English network, gave that approach a full-throated endorsement in a column on this website.

First, Burman cited the Islamic prohibition on depicting Muhammad in any manner. "To do otherwise," he wrote, "is to mock and ridicule the faith."

Then, having established that we shouldn't broadcast material that might upset religious people (I have to wonder if Burman has ever listened to the endless list of things evangelical Christians here in the U.S. would like to see censored), Burman went on to denounce the Danish cartoonists and newspapers for "an act of stupidity."

"What if," he asked, "those cartoons had instead focused on Christianity? And on Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary engaged in unspeakably offensive acts?

"Shouldn't the media be part of the solution, not the problem?" (emphasis his).

What if?

Well. First of all, the conventional view is that journalists are supposed to solve problems by exposing them, without fear or favour.

Secondly, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary and just about every other religious icon have been mercilessly mocked in the Western media, and in Hollywood.

And the answer to Burman's "What if?" has been "not much."

I remember going to see Monty Python's Life of Brian in 1979. It ends with Brian — Jesus Christ — on the cross, singing the ditty Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. In the movie, his mother performs oral sex on a Roman centurion.

The Vatican was not amused, but I don't remember any riots or beheadings outside theatres.

There was a political uproar in 1987 when a photograph titled Piss Christ was exhibited here in the United States. It showed a crucifix immersed in a glass of the artist's urine.

As art, it was just shock-value junk. But the uproar was over the fact that public money funded the exhibit. Still, there were no riots or blood in the streets, and the artist, unlike author Salman Rushdie, was not declared a legitimate target for murder by all right-thinking faithful.

Double standard

I singled out Burman's arguments here not to concentrate on CBC, or his leadership. I actually regard him as a fine journalist of considerable integrity.

But in that column, he neatly summed up an attitude that ran through almost the entire Canadian media at the time, one that not all journalists agreed with.

In fact, the Western Standard was eventually ordered by the Alberta Human Rights commission, at the behest of a Muslim imam, to defend its decision to publish the cartoons.

Other journalists who have subsequently offended Muslims have received the same summons, Mark Steyn, the conservative Canadian expatriate writer, being one of the best examples. There have been others, in other nations.

In most cases, where Islam is concerned, the general silence from the rest of the media has been remarkable.

"It's a terrible double standard," Paul Schneidereit, past president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, told me.

Of course, religion is not the only censorious force mainstream journalism finds difficult to face. Media outlets in general cower before waves of patriotism or, more accurately, jingoism, in their own audiences.

Witness the self-censoring coverage of George W. Bush in the years immediately following 9/11 — including the almost wholesale acceptance of the false pretences for the war with Iraq.

Or the Associated Press's decision to suppress film of pro-al-Qaeda demonstrations in Palestinian cities after Yasser Arafat's officials threatened the employees who shot the footage.

One could also cite the supine acceptance of military censorship in order to "embed" reporters in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Yes, Comedy Central appeased fanatics.

But it would be nice to see Western journalism acquire some steel in its own spine, rather than just hectoring others.

Free speech is not really free. And it has more enemies than friends.