Once you decide not to show an image for fear of offending people, the number of things people say they find offensive, and therefore worthy of silencing, may well multiply.
So it goes today. On the cover of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this week, the anniversary of the terrorist slaughter that killed much of its staff in Paris, you will not find any images of Mohammad. The image is a figure of God—the Judeo-Christian visualization of him—with an assault weapon strapped to his back. The text on it, translated from French, says "One year on: The killer is still at large."
Even though this image does not include Mohammad, the Associated Press, nevertheless, has decided not to pass along images of the cover of the issue to its many, many subscribing media outlets. There actually were some images available from AP content providers earlier, but they've been yanked. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post takes note:
The Vatican doesn't like it, asserting that it doesn't "acknowledge or … respect believers' faith in God, regardless of the religion."
The Associated Press doesn't much care for it, either: "We made a determination that showing a caricature of God in this context was just as offensive as showing a caricature of a prophet and hence decided to not to use the cover image," said Santiago Lyon, AP's vice president and director of photography, in a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog.
Wemple concludes that "once you start censoring, you have to do more censoring to stay consistent." Indeed.
The Associated Press, as a private media service, has every right to decide what sort of images to pass along to customers, though as a former newspaper editor, I would be very annoyed if I were a paying member to the AP only to have them tell me what sort of images were appropriate for me to publish. I'm the one who decides what my readers should be seeing, thank you very much.
There is a price for letting the "heckler's veto" win and we're seeing it play out right now. When you censor not over editorial standards but over fear of a backlash (regardless of what the AP says about offensiveness, an image of Muhammad holding a sign is not a sexual or violent image, and the AP obviously wouldn't self-censor an image of a human male running around carrying a gun), then suddenly everybody is going to find any image that challenges their beliefs to be "offensive." We can guess full well that some sensitive Christian souls complained about treating differently from Muslims. Rather than says, "Gosh, they're right—let's think about how we're actually making these decisions," they've doubled down on it and made the problem even worse. It's made all the more repulsive that the cover is obviously criticizing not God, but the behavior of the followers of religion. People are offended over not what the image says about God but about them.
Read more about the terrible, censorious way people have responded over the last year to the Charlie Hebdo attack from Anthony Fisher here.