March 28, 2014
One of Belgium’s leading newspapers, De Morgen, apologized on Monday to readers offended by a satirical feature published two days earlier that used racist images of President Obama to mock his strained relationship with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
The editors of the left-leaning Flemish daily explained that the premise of their “admittedly tasteless joke” was that the Russian president had been asked to submit an article about Mr. Obama but sent instead two racist caricatures — one photograph captioned to suggest that the first African-American president of the United States was a drug dealer, and a second that was digitally altered to give the president and Michelle Obama the features of apes.
In an editorial published on Monday under the headline, “Is De Morgen Racist?” the newspaper, with roots in the country’s socialist movement, essentially absolved itself of the charge, suggesting that regular readers aware of its stance against racism understood that the offensive images — published as part of a special section on the American president ahead of his visit to Belgium this week — were intended to satirize how racists think.
Some readers, including the Nigerian-born writer Chika Unigwe, who has lived in Belgium, argued that publishing the images revealed an unacknowledged racism in Belgian society, even from the editors of one of the country’s avowedly “progressive” newspapers.
According to a partial translation of the Morgen editorial from the Belgian state broadcaster VRT, the editors argued that their mistake was in assuming that the context of the images, in a regular satirical section of the paper, would make it clear to readers that no offense was intended, but when the images circulated online that context was lost. When “you consider the fragment apart from its context, which is a properly worked out satirical section, then you don’t see the joke but just a picture evoking sheer racism,” the editors wrote. “That was a risk we didn’t consider enough beforehand.”
“We wrongly assumed,” they added, “that racism is no longer acceptable, and that in this way it could be the subject of a joke.” The editors went on to suggest that they had overlooked the fact that the racist trope of comparing Africans and their descendants to apes is still common.
Absolving themselves of the charge of harboring racist intentions, the editors concluded with an apology to anyone who was offended. “In this case, we plead guilty of bad taste,” they said. “We continue to be on the side of those that are battling any form of racism.”
The newspaper also suggested that the backlash to its failed satire was stronger outside Belgium because racism is more of a problem in other countries, including in the Netherlands, where the news site Joop published a copy of the full-page satire, showing the fictional Putin op-ed article beneath a stream of fictional tweets from Mr. Obama in Flemish.
Ms. Unigwe was unimpressed by the apology and noted that a sidebar on the satirist responsible for the section, Marc Van Springel, said that he was shocked by the response.