Why a Danish newspaper won’t publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

Jyllands-Posten was at the center of a 2005 cartoon crisis. After numerous terror threats, editors chose to play it safe

As media outlets globally have faced the dilemma of whether or not to republish French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s satirical cartoons on the day after the magazine was attacked and 12 of its staffers killed, one such decision is worth special notice. Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which in 2005 was at the center of an international crisis after publishing 12 satirical cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammad, decided not to publish the much-discussed French cartoons.

Jyllands-Posten Editor in Chief Jørn Mikkelsen explained (in Danish) in an online video segment on the paper’s website that the decision to refrain from publishing was based partly on concerns for staff safety. He denied, though, that the paper is exercising self-censorship.

“We have to be extra alert. I maintain my right as an editor to print all types of cartoons again at some point. Just not right now,” Mikkelsen said. “The truth is that to us, it would be completely irresponsible to print old or new prophet cartoons right now. Many would rather not admit that. I am, although very reluctantly.”

The paper has been the target of numerous terror plots meant to retaliate for the 2005 publication of the cartoons, and contributing cartoonist Kurt Westergaard survived a 2010 assault with intent to kill when an armed man broke into his home.

While Jyllands-Posten, one of Denmark’s top newspapers, isn’t publishing the cartoons, most other major Danish newspaper published Charlie Hebdo illustrations in some form.

In 2006, staff at Charlie Hebdo and many other media organizations faced the same decision that editors and journalists have grappled with over the past 24 hours—to republish or not—as violence escalated globally in the wake of the Danish cartoon crisis. What had started out as heated debates turned into attacks on Danish embassies, and violent demonstrations with several deaths. In February of that year, the French magazine published all 12 of the original Danish cartoons, and in March published a manifesto against Islamic totalitarianism, signed by several prominent authors, including Salman Rushdie.

Today, Mikkelsen was asked by his own publication if Jyllands-Posten ought not return the solidarity. “We feel very strongly for our colleagues at Charlie Hebdo. They stuck with us. We have chosen what we believe to be the right solution for us,” Mikkelsen said. “We have to find a way to cover this very important story, while we’re still a very big part of it. That isn’t easy.”

As a reason not to publish, Mikkelsen said that if Jyllands-Posten printed the cartoons, the old debates about the 2005 crisis would overshadow the present situation. An argument that one of Mikkelsen’s critics has rejected, referring to the fact that most other Danish newspapers did print the cartoons.

The renewed debate about the power of satirical cartoons and freedom of speech versus religious sensitivity comes less than two months after the US publication of a book about the Danish cartoon crisis by Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor who commissioned the 12 original cartoons in 2005.

While the book was published four years ago in Danish, Rose had a hard time finding publishers in the US. The Tyranny of Silence was finally published in the US on November 14, 2014—but it does not include any of the 12 cartoons.

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.