free speech debate

Why Norway's largest newspaper is taking on Mark Zuckerberg on its front-page

Update: How Facebook was forced to reinstate the iconic Vietnam 'napalm girl' photo it had earlier censored.

Update: Please see the bottom of the page for Facebook's decision to reinstate the controversial photo.

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg is under fire.

Espen Egil Hansen, the editor-in-chief and CEO of Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, has published a front-page open letter to Zuckerberg, joining issue with Facebook's decision to censor a historic photograph of the Vietnam war.

“I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way,” wrote Hansen, lambasting Zuckerberg of creating "rules that don’t distinguish between child pornography and famous war photographs."

"To be honest, I have no illusions that you will read this letter," wrote Hansen. "The reason why I will still make this attempt, is that I am upset, disappointed – well, in fact even afraid - of what you are about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society."

Hansen's open letter provides the background to the controversy:

A few weeks ago the Norwegian author Tom Egeland posted an entry on Facebook about, and including, seven photographs that changed the history of warfare. You in turn removed the picture of a naked Kim Phuc, fleeing from the napalm bombs – one of the world’s most famous war photographs.

Tom then rendered Kim Phuc’s criticism against Facebook for banning her picture. Facebook reacted by excluding Tom and prevented him from posting a new entry.

Listen, Mark, this is serious. First you create rules that don’t distinguish between child pornography and famous war photographs. Then you practice these rules without allowing space for good judgement. Finally you even censor criticism against and a discussion about the decision – and you punish the person who dares to voice criticism.

"The demand that we remove the picture came in an e-mail from Facebook’s office in Hamburg this Wednesday morning," wrote Hansen.

Less than 24 hours after the e-mail was sent, Facebook deleted the article as well as the image from Aftenposten’s Facebook page.

"But, dear Mark, you are the world’s most powerful editor," wrote Hansen. "I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly," Hansen continued, making a strong case not just for freedom of speech but the need for editorial responsibility.

"This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California," Hansen pointed out.

Let me return to the picture I mentioned by Nick Ut. The napalm-girl is by far the most iconic documentary photography from the Vietnam war. The media played a decisive role in reporting different stories about the war than the men in charge wanted them to publish. They brought about a change of attitude which played a role in ending the war. They contributed to a more open, more critical debate. This is how a democracy must function.

The free and independent media have an important task in bringing information, even including pictures, which sometimes may be unpleasant, and which the ruling elite and maybe even ordinary citizens cannot bear to see or hear, but which might be important precisely for that reason.

Listen, Mark, this is serious!

«If liberty means anything at all, British George Orwell wrote in the preface to Animal Farm, «it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.»

The media have a responsibility to consider publication in every single case. This may be a heavy responsibility. Each editor must weigh the pros and cons.

This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California.

Mark, please try to envision a new war where children will be the victims of barrel bombs or nerve gas. Would you once again intercept the documentation of cruelties, just because a tiny minority might possibly be offended by images of naked children, or because a paedophile person somewhere might see the picture as pornography?

If you will not distinguish between child pornography and documentary photographs from a war, this will simply promote stupidity and fail to bring human beings closer to each other.

To pretend that it is possible to create common, global rules for what may and what may not be published, only throws dust into peoples’ eyes.

The last decade has shown the extent to which unpredictable and destructive things can happen when publication refuses to take into account the context.

The controversy over the Mohammad-caricatures, which flared in late 2005 and still remains a heated debate, had unknown consequences simply because the context and the original justification for publication were ignored.

The drawings were put into entirely new contexts, censured and condemned based on allegedly universal religious rules. This resulted in large demonstrations, violence and killings – and a remaining, potent threat against the freedom of speech. Some of the persons involved must still live with police protection.

Facebook did not go global until this controversy had passed its peak. Your approach, Mark, might possibly have been to ban publication of Mohammad-drawings? If so, Facebook would in a stereotype way have stood on the side of the extreme religious forces, in opposition to the freedom of speech. You would have overruled the individual editor’s assessment. Those of us who were in the centre of events at the time had to weigh the pros and cons day by day – and make decisions based on the reality we were in.

Update: Earlier, Facebook had also removed a post by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who joined the debate on Friday, and used the photograph. "Facebook gets it wrong when they censor such pictures. It limits the freedom of speech," Solberg wrote. "I say yes to healthy, open and free debate – online and wherever else we go. But I say no to this form of censorship."

Facebook first insisted on defending its policy, insisting:

“it’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others” 

Solberg responded by posting a censored version of the photograph. "What Facebook does by removing images of this kind, good as the intentions may be, is to edit our common history," she added, as she posted other iconic photographs.

Widespread criticism soon led to a chorus of demands which seems to have led the social media company to reconsider its earlier decision, as it announced that it had “decided reinstate the image on Facebook, where we are aware it has been removed."

“It will take some time to adjust these systems, but the photo should be available for sharing in the coming days," said the statement:

After hearing from our community, we looked again at how our Community Standards were applied in this case. An image of a naked child would normally be presumed to violate our Community Standards, and in some countries might even qualify as child pornography. 

In this case, we recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time. Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal, so we have decided to reinstate the image on Facebook where we are aware it has been removed. 

We will also adjust our review mechanisms to permit sharing of the image going forward. It will take some time to adjust these systems but the photo should be available for sharing in the coming days. 

We are always looking to improve our policies to make sure they both promote free expression and keep our community safe, and we will be engaging with publishers and other members of our global community on these important questions going forward.

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