From China to Denmark, media lessons

Web giant Google and incendiary "Muhammad cartoons" have more in common than 2.7 million search hits that phrase produces. Google - which self-censors in order to do business in China - and the toon tumult point to a need for smart sensitivity in exercising freedom of expression.

Media such as Google or the newspapers that printed the cartoons must exercise responsible judgment, whether they flex their information muscles in free markets or operate in countries or with cultures that are far more restrictive.

That type of judgment was lacking in the decision at Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten to publish last September a dozen cartoons showing the prophet Muhammad. Islam forbids any visual depiction of its founder.

Muslims protested and boycotted Danish goods, and 11 ambassadors demanded that the Danish government "punish" the paper. In solidarity with the Danes, papers in many other countries published the illustrations, which in recent days triggered mass violent protests from Asia to the Middle East, including the burning of Danish and Norwegian foreign missions.

World leaders are rightly condemning the violence and calling for calm. If it's respect for their religion these protesters want, they won't get it this way. Rather, they seem to be egging on a clash of civilizations.

That clash is less likely if one side refuses to be baited, and that's where the Danish newspaper got off track. Danish editor Flemming Rose solicited the drawings precisely because of their sensitive nature. He says Europe is being cowed into self-censorship by Muslims. Publishing the toons plants the flag for free speech.

Thankfully, Mr. Rose lives in a democracy and has a right to express his views. But he could have found a less in-your-face way of doing so. His plethora of illustrations was a cultural assault akin to staging a neo-Nazi rally in a Jewish neighborhood. It bordered on yelling "fire" in a crowded theater - not a matter for censorship but judgment.

The media makes judgment calls daily. Broadcasters give advance warning of very graphic images, for instance, and newspapers often choose not to publish them. That's not censorship, but market sensitivity.

And what does an uproar over Google have to do with this? To locate network servers in China to better serve the country's 100 million Internet users, it had to negotiate a compromise with a government that blocks certain websites and search topics. To stay viable in that huge market, Google is doing the censoring itself.

But it did apparently win the right to notify users when information is withheld, and it's taking precautions to prevent tracing of potential dissidents. More important, Chinese are better off with limited Google service that works well and brings them impartial, timely news coverage.

That's not to let Google off the hook. It must join with other Internet companies and establish standards for operating in restrictive countries. These companies must use group leverage to pressure repressive regimes for more media freedom.

With freedom comes the responsibility to use it wisely. Google and the media spreading images of Muhammad should exercise more wisdom.

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