Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Cultural splits over free speech intensify

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

When U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed last month in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi, The Bee's coverage included photographs from Libya of the violence.

Images from that coverage still online at include several of Stevens on the job, in happier days. What wasn't included, online or in print, were graphic photos of Stevens, bloodied and possibly unconscious, that ran in a handful of U.S. papers including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News. The New York Times published them online but not in print.

So why didn't we?

Stevens, as we reported, grew up in Northern California, spending his grade school and middle school years in Davis. Friends and family live throughout this region, including his father, Jan Stevens, who lives in Loomis with his wife.

This wasn't just a story about violence overseas. It was a story with very local roots. We knew reactions to our coverage would be personal.

At the time we had little information about the photographs. Most importantly, it was unclear whether he still was alive at the time they were taken.

The photographs instantly conveyed the horror of the attack. But was that kind of graphic image necessary to convey that message? We decided no.

You can agree or disagree with that decision – we rarely have complete agreement even within the newsroom – but it is reflective of our efforts to hold true to community standards and to be responsible with the power we hold as publishers.

Images can touch people in ways different than words; they can and do create strong emotions. That's something for all of us to consider given the ease with which anyone today can publish online.

The consulate attack launched an international debate over free speech online and the responsibility that should come with it. The YouTube video initially blamed for the attack, "Innocence of Muslims," is an amateurish effort to stir up trouble that has been magnified online, igniting turmoil in over two dozen countries, leading to dozens of deaths and a cyber- attack against U.S. banks.

The full story behind the video, made in Southern California, still isn't known. Coverage from the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press identified a key player behind the movie, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, to be a convicted felon who was arrested Sept. 27 on probation violations.

What is clear, however, is how one fringe voice, or in this case apparently a small fringe group, can manipulate the megaphone that is the Internet to create damage across the world.

Plenty of Americans steeped in our culture of free speech protection have had little patience for the Muslim response to the video. In Sacramento, for instance, the "Armstrong & Getty" radio program joined the fray, encouraging listeners to make anti-Muhammad ads, post them to the Arabic news network Al-Jazeera and "bombard them with ads until they grow up." The program went dark for two days in late September after those comments, though hosts Jack Armstrong and Joe Getty assured listeners that owner Clear Channel was not censoring them.

Yet is this really just an issue of American-style free speech rights? It seems simplistic, and even dangerous, to approach such a significant cultural divide from that perspective.

YouTube content goes global in a heartbeat, disregarding the boundaries of cultural standards often tied to geography.

You and I might be willing to ignore or put up with what we regard as offensive voices because of a strong belief in the value of free speech as a cornerstone of our democracy. That's not a shared value across the world. As Google and YouTube and Facebook and other U.S. companies extend technology and new forms of communication across the globe, they are wading right into that cultural divide.

In the U.S., YouTube declined a request by President Barack Obama to take down the video, saying that it did not violate the company's hate speech standards. But it moved quickly after the consulate attack to block access to the video in Libya and Egypt, and has acquiesced in other countries as well.

Where it did not move quickly enough, news reports show countries taking their own action. Last week in Moscow a court declared the film to be extremist. In Iran, officials first blocked Gmail and then, after lifting the ban, began preparing to censor YouTube. The government of Kashmir blocked YouTube and Facebook.

The turmoil attached to this video is not yet over, interlocked as it is with the Arab Spring revolution.

Nor is the evolution of standards online, where much work remains to determine the boundaries of free speech for vastly different cultures.