The double standards on free speech in the media are impossible to ignore

Viewpoint: No mainstream newspaper would justify blatant antisemitism within its pages. So why is Islamophobia excused — even celebrated — by the press under the guise of free speech?
Cover Image for The double standards on free speech in the media are impossible to ignore

Islamophobia gets a free pass in the media while antisemitism and other offenses are rightfully challenged.

Bank Phrom/Unsplash

It took barely a day for The Guardian to rightly apologize and remove an offensive cartoon about ex-BBC chairman Richard Sharp, who had resigned the day prior. 

Masses of complaints highlighted antisemitic tropes in the drawing which depicts Sharp, who is Jewish, sneering with an elongated nose carrying a box labeled “Goldman Sachs” on his way out. In the box is a squid — an image critics argue is a motif used to depict Jewish control over various aspects of society — and a puppet version of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who used to work for Sharp at the investment bank. The cartoon also features former prime minister Boris Johnson perched atop a pile of dung, clutching two bags of money and shouting “Cheer up matey, I put you down for a peerage.”  

The ex-BBC chairman quit after breaching rules by helping Boris Johnson obtain a loan of £800,000, resulting in a “perceived conflict of interest” in his role at the BBC, an investigation found. 

In a personal apology posted after a massive public outcry, cartoonist Martin Rowson explained that though the cartoon was never meant to be antisemitic and was instead a commentary on corruption that seeps through our leadership, he failed in his mission and was thoughtless in his execution. Rowson did not push back on the removal of the cartoon.

Islamophobia largely gets a free pass whilst antisemitism and other offenses are vocally and rightfully challenged — and swiftly corrected. 

Removing the cartoon and issuing an apology was the right thing to do. Such instances of antisemitism must not be tolerated in a civilized society that celebrates freedom of expression but understands its limits when it comes to hate speech. Contrast this, however, with numerous cases of anti-Muslim sentiment in both the press and society at large — and how those offenses are frequently protected and even celebrated under the guise of freedom of expression. 

These societal double standards are becoming harder to ignore. Islamophobia largely gets a free pass whilst antisemitism and other offenses are vocally and rightfully challenged — and swiftly corrected. 

We can find numerous examples in the last decade alone. Hate speech against Muslims on social media is rampant and unchecked. A 2022 report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that the major social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok failed to act on 89% of posts containing Islamophobic and anti-Muslim hate content that were reported to them. When a far-right Danish-Swedish politician burned the Quran, the Muslim holy book, the demonstration was protected as an act of free speech — and Sweden’s Supreme Administrative Court recently overturned a ban on two subsequent Quran burning protests. 

In the mainstream press, tabloids are often considered the main culprits, but even broadsheets and trusted news organizations feed off the growing trend of distasteful content being disseminated in our society.

Several studies have shown how the media fails in its duty to report with honesty, fairness and dignity when it comes to Islam. Muslims are often represented around issues of radicalization, terrorism, war and conflict. In fact, a review of 256,963 news articles over two decades mentioning Muslims or Islam in American media found that roughly 80% of them were framed in a negative light. Meanwhile, mentions of Jews were negative 49% of the time, Hindus 52% of the time, and Catholics 45% of the time. A similar review of British, Canadian and Australian press revealed that “the proportion of negative to positive articles was almost exactly the same as that in the United States.”  

With 64% of Brits getting their information about Islam from the media, this is deeply concerning. Almost half of Americans with negative opinions of Muslims had their views shaped by the media, a 2007 Pew poll revealed. And there’s much evidence to suggest that such representation directly results in anti-Muslim hate, exclusion and discrimination. 

It’s so bad that U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein criticized The Sun newspaper in 2015 for publishing a column by provocative commentator Katie Hopkins where she used the word “cockroaches” to describe the migrants coming into Britain.

The message is clear: When there is blatant, offensive anti-Muslim hate in the press, it must be tolerated as free expression. But blatant, offensive antisemitism is a violation that is exempt from the protections of free speech.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance similarly slammed British tabloids for using “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology.” It’s always a deliberate editorial choice to run divisive articles, and anti-immigrant sentiment isn’t just fueled by far-right politicians. The press also has the dirty stain of ink on their hands. 

In the U.K., provocative headlines like “Muslim plot to kill Pope”, “Ramadan Train Driver in Crash” and “Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate” reveal the venom of the press against Muslims. The Sun was forced to admit that its headline “1 in 5 Muslims sympathy for jihadis” was misleading — but only six days after its initial publication, because an independent press watchdog fielded more than 3,000 complaints about the headline. But the damage was already done before the regulators stepped in, and in many other cases, there is no accountability at all.

Compare that to The Guardian cartoon: It was taken down within 24 hours, there were numerous articles condemning it, and it was the topic of radio shows for the next few days. 

French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, known for its deeply vile cartoons targeting Muslims, is front and center in its double standards. Cartoonist Maurice Sinet was fired from Charlie Hebdo in 2009 after allegations of antisemitism in one of his articles, even though he was later acquitted by a court on antisemitism charges. Satirists drawing offensive anti-Muslims cartoons, however, are celebrated — and the magazine even had the audacity to recently republish its most provocative content.  

It’s true that Charlie Hebdo isn’t a rigorous news publication like The Guardian. But when that controversy erupted, giants of the journalistic world felt a duty to throw their support behind the magazine and celebrate the publication of offensive cartoons as a valiant act of free speech that must be defended. “The best response to Charlie Hebdo attack,” tweeted then Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, “is to escalate blasphemous satire.” 

Many mainstream columnists added that such blasphemy is in fact necessary for a free and liberal society. In response, The Intercept planned an experiment: If equal-opportunity blasphemy is in fact a virtuous goal, the site planned to commission several cartoonists “to create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims.” The problem? No cartoonists were willing to put their name on such a work — even as satire — because they acknowledged that it would destroy their careers. 

The message is clear: When there is blatant, offensive anti-Muslim hate in the press, it must be tolerated as free expression. But blatant, offensive antisemitism is a violation that is exempt from the protections of free speech. This prejudice isn’t isolated to parts of the media. It seeps through our political elite.

More than half of British MPs have faced racism from fellow politicians, according to an ITV News survey in 2020. Almost all of them felt that their race or faith made it more difficult to get elected, with 83% saying their ethnicity made it harder for them to do their work.   

Politics and journalism are indeed intertwined. In the U.K., 43% of high-profile journalists are privately educated. Some of the most prominent politicians (29%) also attended private school, while only 7% of the Britons have the privilege of private schooling. Reports from newsrooms at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal indicate that about half of their newsrooms are filled with graduates of prestigious universities. 

Most journalists in the U.K. are white — 94% in fact — with only 10% from a working-class background. Three-quarters of journalists in the U.S. are white. We’ve long heard of diversity and inclusion, but this is just as much about socio-economic disparity than racial. A survey by YouGov and Birmingham University in 2021 found prejudice against Islam is more prevalent amongst wealthier and well-educated people. And this reflects in the media coverage.

Antisemitism is just as vile and great a threat as Islamophobia. By dismissing one and not the other, we undermine the fight against all types of racism and hatred. You can’t stand against anti-Semitism without standing equally against all other forms of prejudice and discrimination. 

It’s not all the fault of the editors, however. Normally, the measure of whether to publish provocative material is what’s deemed as generally accepted standards in society. If anti-Semitism is considered to be a worse offense than Islamophobia, then perhaps it has more to do with the thinking of established commentators, politicians and those with influence, rather than the media per se. Maybe we just need a higher moral standard. 

Atif Rashid is the editor-in-chief at Analyst News.