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Trouble in Denmark: covering the cartoon story  
Wednesday, March 8, 2006 | by Eamon Hickey

In preparation for a future article about him, we've been talking regularly over the past couple of months with Jens Dresling, a staff photographer for the Danish daily newspaper, Politiken.

During the time we've been chatting with him, of course, parts of the Muslim world have erupted in demonstrations and rioting sparked by cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that were originally published by another Danish daily, Jyllands-Posten. We asked Dresling and his boss, Per Folkver, Politiken's Picture Editor-in-Chief, about covering this affair that has become "the biggest foreign policy challenge Denmark has faced since World War II," in the words of the country's Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Inevitably, it is by far the biggest story in Danish news, but it has a peculiar divided character to it. In the Middle East it's about outrage and violence, and more than 30 people have been killed in the rioting there. In Denmark, where there are about 200,000 Muslims in a total population of 5.5 million, the story's dimensions are political, social, and philosophical.

"[At first there was] a huge debate on the freedom of the press," Folkver told us, "but now it has turned into a debate on how the government handled it." Underlying it all is a longer running story of racial and cultural tensions sparked by immigration, and the resulting anti-immigration backlash, that affect Denmark no less than many other European countries.

The range of Dresling's assignments for Politiken – he has been at home and knew of no Danish newspaper photographers working in the Middle East when we spoke to him at the end of February – give a good picture of the Danish side of the story.

His first shoot related to the cartoons was in December when he photographed a large Muslim protest demonstration in Copenhagen's town square. Other Muslim demonstrations have followed. "They were loud, but they were peaceful," Dresling told us. He added that he has faced no hostility or violence during his coverage of any part of the story.

Peaceful Protest: Danish Muslims demonstrate in Copenhagen's town square outside city hall (Photo by Jens Dresling/Politiken)

There have been non-Muslim demonstrations, as well. One that Dresling photographed was staged by the Danish Front, a right-wing anti-immigration party. "There was a counter-demonstration against them, too, mostly by Danish youth," Dresling said. "Police arrested 160 people."

Other assignments have included a portrait of one of the leaders of Danish Muslim opposition to the cartoons, Friday prayers at Copenhagen mosques, and documentary images of ordinary Muslim residents of Denmark. The majority of Muslims came to Denmark, beginning in the 1970s, in a wave of immigration from countries such as Turkey and Yugoslavia. "Most are moderates, who haven't had their voices heard in this discussion," Dresling said.

The photographer has also shot an abundance of press conferences and diplomatic meetings as the fallout from the controversy has extended to boycotts of Danish products, embassy closings, and calls for Parliamentary hearings on the conduct of the Prime Minister.

For coverage of the Middle East, Politiken has relied on the newswires. Like many Danes, Dresling has been taken aback by the scope and intensity of the reaction there, and he finds it hard to believe his normally sedate homeland is at the center of it. "It's amazing, looking through the AP [Associated Press] pictures for [any recent day]," he said. "The Danish cartoon story is half the pictures. [It's] like being in a bad movie that you find on some weird channel on Saturday night. It's surreal. Danes are really spoiled people. We haven't been in a war for many years. We are used to other countries [feeling friendly] towards us. It's unimaginable."

Politiken and Jyllands-Posten are owned by the same company, and security has been tightened significantly at the former's headquarters building in Copenhagen. "After the bombings in London," Dresling said, referring to the terrorist attack on the London Underground system in the summer of 2005, "there's been a lot of discussion of when it's going to happen here, and it seems like that might be a little more possible now. We have a couple of bomb alarms a week in the public transport system. Somebody [leaves behind] a backpack or something. Now they are treated more seriously."

Could a controversy over cartoons really have such a big impact on Danish life? "Yesterday [Sunday, February 26], we published five pages on it," said Per Folkver, who is 52. "I don't remember in my life ... a topic that has been so dominant in Denmark. You can say the edges have become sharper than ever before."

A Gesture: A Danish Muslim signals his displeasure with anti-immigration demonstrators at a protest in Hillerød, 40 km north of Copenhagen (Photo by Jens Dresling/Politiken)

Awaiting Transport: About 160 people, mostly Danish youth, were arrested at one demonstration (Photo by Jens Dresling/Politiken)

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