By Bruno Waterfield - 9th February 2006
A media code of conduct is on the EU agenda after a spiralling row over newspaper publication of cartoon caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Europe’s justice commissioner Franco Frattini has confirmed that voluntary rules are to be drawn up after talks with media bosses, journalists and religious leaders.
He told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper that there was a “very real problem” in the EU of balancing “two fundamental freedoms, the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion”.
“The exercising of a right is always the assumption of a responsibility,” he told the newspaper.
A meeting of 15 to 20 media and community leaders is set to be hosted by the European commission in May and Frattini is appealing for the European media to agree to “self-regulate”.
“The press will give the Muslim world the message: we are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression, we can and we are ready to self-regulate that right,” he said.
Frattini’s voluntary code of conduct will not have the status of an EU legal instrument and would not be enforceable by the European courts.
“When I talk about a code of conduct, I don't talk about an instrument to limit the freedom of expression. But I will try to offer to the press, to journalists, an instrument to self-regulate.”
“The first point is, any kind of unilateral imposition coming from institutions should be avoided,” he said.
Frattini argues that journalists or publishers should have a regard to the context of an image or text, taking into religious sensibilities or the international situation.
“I were a journalist, I probably would have thought about the real context that one particular religion, one of the three big monotheistic religions, bans the publication of images of God, it's an element you have to consider.”
“That's why I would suggest this concept of prudence. Prudence involves considering all the elements. It is a relative concept, prudence,” he told the Telegraph.
“I should be prudent given the very difficult situation in the Middle East, I can be less prudent in a different moment, where all these very sensitive issues are not on the same table.”
“I cannot create a privileged [ranking] among religions. But how can we treat one sentiment of religiosity, or another, it could depend on the context.”
Last September – just nine days before a Danish newspaper sparked the row by publishing 12 cartoons of Islam’s founder – Frattini proposed a voluntary code of conduct for media organisations.
He identified media and internet dissemination of ideas about Islam, inequality and terrorism as a key factor in the recruitment of extremists.
“It is... false attribution of certain values and practices to Islam that creates negative stereotypes in the media and society about the religion, particularly since the attacks of September 11 2001,” he argued in a policy paper.
“This can contribute to negative stereotypes, thus fuelling grounds for attacks on Muslims on the one hand and exacerbating feelings of discrimination within Muslim communities on the other.”
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has rejected reports – first covered on EUpolitix – that new rules covering media coverage of religion and Islam could be on the way.
“We have already made it clear to Brussels officials that this will be unacceptable to everyone in media and they have agreed to encourage a professional dialogue but not to start drawing up codes or guidelines.”
“That is the responsibility of media professionals alone,” said IFJ general secretary Aidan White.