Monday, April 28, 2008

Islamophobia accusations spark debate on Canada press freedom

OTTAWA (AFP) - A complaint by Canadian Muslims against a leading local news magazine has sparked a national debate on the limits of press freedoms in this country often cited as a beacon of multiculturalism.

"Protest while you still can," shouted this week's edition of Maclean's, a publication similar to US magazines Time or Newsweek, saying in an editorial that human rights boards are undermining free speech in Canada.

The controversy dates back to October 2006, when Maclean's ran an article excerpted from noted author and journalist Mark Steyn's book "America Alone," entitled "Why the Future Belongs to Islam."

A self-described agitator, Steyn argued that demographics and Muslims' global ambitions ensured Islam's eventual world domination and that Europe was "too enfeebled to resist its remorseless transformation into Eurabia."

For four Toronto law students, Maclean's had crossed the line by proposing that "Muslims are part of a global conspiracy to take over Western society and impose an oppressive form of Islamic law," Khurrum Awan, one of the students, told AFP.

"We did some research and realized that Maclean's had published 19 articles with such a tone," he said, adding that his group asked for but was denied the opportunity to publish a response when they met with the magazine's editors.

Maclean's, which is defending itself against accusations at a human rights tribunal that its articles incited hate, said the students' demands for a 5,000-word rebuttal and to direct the magazine cover art were unacceptable.

"This is a complete fabrication," said Awan, insisting the editor-in-chief told them he would rather see the magazine go out of business than publish a response, or, according to the magazine, hand over editorial reigns.

The students, backed by the Canadian Islamic Congress, lodged a complaint with the federal human rights commission and two of its provincial counterparts in Ontario and British Columbia.

The federal and British Columbia tribunals are still mulling over the case.

The Ontario panel declined to hear it, yet offered a stern rebuke of Maclean's on April 9 which prompted indignation from the magazine.

In a statement, the Ontario Human Rights Commission said the contents of press articles were beyond its purview, but added it "has serious concerns about the content of a number of articles concerning Muslims" published by Maclean's and other media outlets which were "identified as contributing to Islamophobia and promoting societal intolerance towards Muslims."

Supported by several media outlets, Maclean's said it was "deeply troubling" that a public official would castigate the press without offering it an opportunity to defend itself at a hearing.

The magazine also called for "an unambiguous reaffirmation of the right to freedom of expression, and assurance that reasonable limits on free speech are in fact reasonable."

The complainants said they were "delighted" by the Ontario commission's outcry.

"The tribunal said clearly that Maclean's articles were racist," explained Mohammed Boudjenane, head of the Canadian Arab Federation.

"I believe this will start a debate on the freedom of the press versus limiting speech that incites hate."

Alan Borovoy, a lawyer for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, however, said human rights commissions should limit their decisions to acts, and not "restrict the free expression of opinion."

For Julius Grey, an advocate for minority rights, "all restrictions on freedom of expression are appalling" and he said the students in this case "chose the wrong target."

"But they're right to complain about Islamophobia," he told AFP, noting that "since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Muslims are not treated the same as everybody else."

Source: AFP

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