It started with a cartoon. After the launch of their fifth edition, the editors of Woroni – ANU’s fortnightly student newspaper – were summoned to the office of the Chancelry. Within days, all eight editors would be facing the threat of serious disciplinary action and the defunding of their 65 year old newspaper.
The spiralling set of events was initiated by a regular Woroni column entitled ‘Advice from Religion’. In each edition so far this year, the paper has published a cartoon sending up a major religion, moving from Catholicism to Scientology, Mormonism, Judaism, and, in the fifth edition, Islam. Though the editors had previously issued an apology after a complaint from Catholics on Campus, this was the first time the Chancelry had become involved.
The cartoon was undoubtedly contentious and provocative. Under a column titled ‘Before the law, equal to testimony of one man’ the cartoon had an image of two women. The next title, with the heading ‘While menstruating, be present in a place of business or worship’ was above an image of no women. Another line read “The Prophet’s third wife, Aisha, was nine when the marriage was consummated (a fifty three year old man fucked a nine year old girl)”.
According to co-author Jamie Freestone, the point of the fortnightly column was “to point out the nefarious aspects of different religions’ official doctrines. In this case (Islam), the sexism and misogyny in The Koran.”
The images quickly drew a negative reaction from Muslim students and organisations. One student, Fatemah Khalfan, wrote to Woroni with concerns that the cartoon would propagate racist stereotypes already prevalent in western media commentary. Khalfan concluded that the work replicated a tendency to “present Islam within a specific framework and that is, the framework of the savage”.
Freestone said he and the co-authors realised the cartoon had not been their most subtle or intricate piece of satire, but rejected accusations of perpetuating religious discrimination. “There are very bigoted stereotypes out there regarding asylum seekers from the Middle East or the idea that all Muslims are terrorists, but we’re not interested in that at all,” he said.
But as Muslim students submitted thoughtful letters to the editors, ANU was panicking.
Twice, in a matter of days, the Woroni editorial team were called into the office of the Chancelry. The first time they were asked by the University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor Richard Baker to write a formal apology for the cartoon. When the PDF version of that week’s edition went online, they were again called in and allegedly threatened to be put in front of a university disciplinary hearing, where they would receive no legal representation, and could potentially face punishments as severe as expulsion. The cartoon, they were told, was a threat to the ANU’s reputation and security, and had to be taken offline. On top of this, funding cuts were allegedly threatened.
“Professor Hughes-Warnington [Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic)] informed us that we were jeopardising our SSAF,” Woroni Editor-in-Chief Cam Wilson told Honi Soit.
Unlike Honi, Woroni receives its allocation of Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) funding directly from the university, meaning it can potentially be punished for publishing material that upsets the university’s management
It is also alleged that in these meetings the Pro Vice-Chancellor accused Woroni of breaking ANU’s regulations in relation to racial or religious vilification.
But Content Editor Joshua Dabelstein rejected this accusation and instead accused the University of putting financial interests over press freedom. He said the University was afraid the cartoon would be received badly overseas, in countries ANU draws significant numbers of International Students from.
After the threats made by the University, and much internal disagreement, the editors decided to comply and take the PDF offline, meaning the cartoon is no longer accessible to anyone who missed out on a hard copy of the paper. But the incident leaves a swathe of unanswered questions; how provocative should student media be? Is there a dual standard on satire when sending up Islam as opposed to other religions? And lastly, perhaps most importantly, are universities becoming too afraid to defend free speech when it jeopardises their commercial interests.
The ANU Chancelry could not be contacted for comment before deadline.