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SAFETY FIRST

At a time when the media in India were hotly debating such controversies as the screening of Vishwaroopam and the denial of permission to Salman Rushdie to visit Calcutta, the internationally acclaimed media baron, Rupert Murdoch, did something unexpected. On January 28, he apologized to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for what he admitted was an “offensive cartoon” published in the Sunday Times. As the newspaper is one among the many owned by Murdoch, he sought an apology. The said cartoon depicted Netanyahu building a bloody wall trapping the bodies of Palestinians.

Elections had been held in Israel on January 22. Netanyahu’s Likud-led right-wing alliance barely managed to retain power. The caption in the cartoon said: “Israeli Elections. Will cementing peace continue?” The image referred to the wall that Israel has been building for a decade on West Bank territory.

Though the cartoon was political, the Board of Deputies of British Jews strongly objected to it, saying it was “shockingly reminiscent of the blood libel imagery more usually found in parts of the virulently anti-Semitic Arab press.” “Blood libel” refers to the false accusation that the Jewish people kill children and use their blood in rituals. Its history can be traced back to the distant past, and has led to persecution and attacks on Jews in the Christian West.

There was a second reason behind the protest by Jews. The cartoon was poorly timed, as it was International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27. The cartoonist, Gerald Scarfe, told The Jewish Chronicle on the same day that he had been unaware about Holocaust Memorial Day and regretted the timing. Murdoch, on his part, said Scarfe had never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times. “Nevertheless, we owe major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon,” he said on Twitter.

Weak stand

At the same time, Sunday Times denied that the cartoon was anti-Semitic, saying it was aimed at Netanyahu and not the Israeli people. It said the timing of its publication was linked to the victory of Netanyahu’s party. After all, the Sunday Times is a weekly paper and the cartoon would have lost its flavour had it been delayed further. “The last thing I or anyone connected with the Sunday Times would countenance would be insulting the memory of the Shoah (the Holocaust) or invoking the blood libel,” said Martin Ivens, its acting editor. “We are however reminded of the sensitivities in this area by the reaction to the cartoon and I will of course bear them very carefully in mind in future.”

The apology by the media tycoon gave a new twist to the freedom of expression debate. If the cartoon was aimed at Netanyahu and not the Israeli people, as was being claimed by the paper, then why was there a need for such a gesture from none else but the owner of the newspaper? Is it because the much chastised Murdoch –– after the News of the World controversy–– did not want to get into another row?

But then in recent years, various publications have taken a firm stand on books, articles and cartoons. The French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, even went on to caricature Prophet Mohammad and the pope, but refused to apologize in spite of the widespread protests. Similarly, violence took place after a Danish cartoonist indulged in a similar act a few years back.

It is not that cartoons are not published in Israel. Yet Murdoch chose to apologize keeping in mind the larger ‘sensitivities’ of the Jewish people. But other publications chose not to do so even though the targets are venerated by millions. Murdoch has set off yet another debate on the limits of the freedom of expression.