Republishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad would be a violation of the Star’s policy regarding respect for religion.

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By Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star

When new recruits join the Toronto Star’s newsroom, it falls to me to acquaint them with the Star’s journalistic policies and ethical standards.

I begin our orientation session by reminding them that the Toronto Star is not some start-up operation making a bet on the future of journalism. We are a news organization that has been deeply rooted in its community for nearly 123 years. As such, the Star and its long-standing progressive values stand for something in our community.

Among the Star’s primary values is a fierce commitment to free expression and reporting the truth fairly and accurately. So too is the Star committed to equality, tolerance, individual and civil liberties, and a strong and united Canada.

In reporting and presenting the news, sometimes these values conflict. Indeed, we’ve seen that writ large in past days with the Star’s decision following the murder of 12 editorial cartoonists at the satirical French newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, not to republish that news organization’s incendiary editorial cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammad.

In the aftermath of the killings, as the cry of “Je Suis Charlie” rang out globally in support of free expression, the Star, like other news organizations with similar values, faced the serious question of whether to publish the provocative images at the heart of this tragedy.

On one hand, those inflammatory images, as well as the image of the Prophet drawn for the cover of the new Charlie Hebdo edition produced this week in defiance of the massacre, are of course newsworthy. I defy anyone to argue that they are not.

On the other hand, the images are offensive and hurtful to Muslims, who consider such depiction of the Prophet insulting and disrespectful of their religion. To publish them would to my mind be a violation of the Star’s policy regarding respect for religion, a policy rooted firmly in the Star’s values.

That policy recognizes that while Canadians live in a secular society, religion does matter to many: “Religion is important to the lives of many of our readers,” it states. “Do not single out a religion or religious practice for ridicule or stereotyping.”

That means treating all religions with equal respect. Though, it should be said, the Star sometimes falls short of this standard. In 2003, it printed an apology to local Hindus for its “insensitivity” in publishing a picture of an undraped statue of the goddess Maa Durga.

The year before, the Ontario Press Council upheld a complaint by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada that an opinion column in the Star had targeted evangelical Christians in a way that tended to engender bias and hatred toward them.

Certainly the Star would not publish anti-Semitic images and we would, rightly, expect a massive outcry in our community if we fell short of our standards and values here. Organizations across Canada and throughout North America peruse the Star carefully every day to make certain no anti-Semitic content is published.

You can be sure the Star gave careful, serious consideration at its highest levels to the question of whether to publish the provocative Charlie Hebdo images of the Prophet, understanding that they were produced in a very different cultural context than exists here, and knowing that a deliberate decision to reprint them would most certainly cause significant offence.

“Do you have an obligation for reasons of journalistic ethics to actually reprint what’s gone on in a particular environment, one that’s very different from your own?” said John Cruickshank, the Star’s publisher, in explaining this news organization’s decision on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning last week.

Cruickshank said there was “genuine concern” the Star would be “printing something that a significant portion of this population would be offended by,” adding, “Why would we do that?

To continue reading this column, please go to thestar.com where it was originally published.