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Harmless joke or normalisation of hate? Obama image in daily sparks debate

In Belgium, the international backlash to De Morgen’s attempt at satire has prompted soul-searching.

By: New York Times | Paris |
April 1, 2014 2:12:38 am


The satirical images of President Barack Obama and wife Michelle, digitally altered to look like apes, have vanished from the website of a Belgian newspaper, which published them days before the president’s visit to Brussels last week.

But Yves Desmet, editor-in-chief of De Morgen, the left-leaning Flemish daily that published the photos, has offered new apologies, the latest in a series of expressions of regret in print and on television, on Twitter and Facebook, acknowledging that the images had crossed the boundaries between humour and racism.

“There are some things too touchy to joke about,” Desmet said in a telephone interview. “We have apologised a hundred times. What more can we do? We screwed up.”

“It’s rather ironic,” he added, “that this has happened to a newspaper that has the strongest anti-racist image of Belgium.”

White House officials in Belgium, where Obama met with NATO leaders as part of his European visit, declined to comment. But the episode is a reminder of how often in Europe images and coded symbols of apes seep into rough political discourse about black politicians, not only in Belgium but also recently in France and Italy.

In the Belgian case, the pictures were part of a feature, labeled a satire, that imagined that the doctored photographs had been sent by the Russian president, Vladimir V Putin. There was also a second photograph characterising Obama as a drug dealer.

“What’s happening is the normalisation of hate,” said Shannon Pfohman, deputy director for policy in Brussels at the European Network Against Racism. “It seems that people no longer feel shocked by it anymore, and I attribute it to the anonymity of the Internet and social networks.”

A newspaper in Montpellier, France, reported recently that a municipal election candidate in southern France had shared a photograph of a baby gorilla on her Facebook page this month. The image was clearly intended to represent the French justice minister, Christiane Taubira, who is black and is entangled in a political tussle about whether she authorised telephone wiretaps of the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Above the photo were the words, “I am a minister and I am a fat liar. I am, I am….”

The candidate, Lina Delnott, a member of Sarkozy’s centre-right party, the Union for a Popular Movement, was later reproached by the mayor of La Grande-Motte, where she was seeking election, and the photo was quickly deleted. She was nonetheless elected to the City Council.

In Italy, the political rise of Cécile Kyenge, an eye surgeon who is the nation’s first black national official, has been marked by frequent episodes involving racial slurs, often led by anti-immigrant political parties.

Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and moved to Italy at 19, received so many death threats after her nomination as minister of integration last year that she received additional security. She was likened to an orangutan by a former government minister and bananas were thrown at her during a political rally.

More recently, in January, Gianluca Buonanno, a lawmaker from the Northern League, a populist party known for anti-immigrant speech, smeared his face with black greasepaint while addressing the lower house of Italy’s Parliament. He was protesting the benefits given to immigrants and said that white Italians must “become a bit darker” to qualify.

In Belgium, the international backlash to De Morgen’s attempt at satire has prompted soul-searching. The photos were published in a regular section of the newspaper, called The Daily Herald, that pokes fun at everyone, including the editor-in-chief, whom it has compared to Gollum from The Lord of the Rings.

“It is a satirical page that often is very rough and borders on the tasteless, and is recognised as such by readers,” Desmet said. The problem, he said, is that the images spread across the Internet, devoid of context, and the editors rapidly realised it was no joking matter.

Desmet said more controls and oversight would be introduced at the paper. “We saw the sensitivity,” he said. “On race and gender-related issues it’s much more difficult to make jokes.”


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