After Charlie the Continuing Battle to Combat Hate and Intolerance

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Aidan White

The media world has been shocked by the barbaric murder of journalists and others in Paris, but unlike many observers most of us have not rushed to judgement over the reasons for these attacks.

Certainly, this was an attack on free speech. And we should be unequivocal in our defence of the principle and in our strong condemnation of the violence of the people responsible for it.

But we should not allow ourselves to be drawn into debates which may add to a mood of confrontation and rising temperatures between communities.

Nevertheless, we know that this attack has cast a long shadow over journalism. Not surprisingly, some cartoonists may think twice about drawing the sort of cartoons for which Charlie Hebdo has become notorious and most editors will think more than twice about running such cartoons.

But what have we learned so far? I think there are at least three immediate lessons.

First, that free expression is more complicated than we think

The right to free speech is a complex and difficult issue which is understood in many different ways around the world.

While we have to defend free expression, we should also honestly define it. The media development community knows better than most that every country has limits of free expression.

And that includes France, where there is much evidence that free expression has already established limits as pointed out by The Guardian’s Gary Younge. For instance,

  • In 2005 Le Monde was found guilty of “racist defamation” against Israel and the Jewish people;
  • In 2008 Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist after refusing to apologise over making anti-Semitic remarks in a column. He took the magazine to court and won;
  • And two years before the first Mohammed cartoons outrage of 2006 involving the Danish newspaper Jyllans Posten, this newspaper refused to publish cartoons offering a light-hearted take on the resurrection of Christ.

As Younge points out, far from being sacred, free speech is contingent. It has limits. All societies draw their lines and there are constant arguments about what constitutes acceptable standards of public discourse when it concerns race, culture and religion.

Our role in building a community of journalism and communications fit for democracy around the world is to help people forge an understanding of free speech rooted in the social, political and cultural realities of peoples’ lives.

Unlike the Pope (who said we shouldn’t have the right to criticise religion) or Salman Rushdie (who says free speech is “absolute”) people in the media development sector understand that fighting for free expression takes place in different contexts which can’t be ignored.

Second, that context and perspective are essential for reporting

We must never make excuses for inhumanity and brutal violence, but the issues behind this attack are complex and need explanation. They concern the fate of Muslims caught up in foreign conflicts and how that has played a role in radicalizing young men and women, including those responsible for the horror on the streets of Paris.

Such young people have been raised on a daily diet of war, torture and civilian massacre in the Middle East in which the victims have usually been Muslims.

This was revealed in the brutal murder and attempted beheading two years ago on the streets of London of a young soldier by two young men, one who talked directly to camera, his blood-stained machete in his hands, of the revenge that he was taking on a country which was causing death and destruction to Muslims in the Middle East.

The personal histories of the young men involved in the Charlie Hebdo and other atrocities in Paris in their public statements pointed to grievances against American torture of Arab prisoners and a personal desire to strike back against western intervention in Iraq.

Careful and sensitive reporting means that we have to unravel the story with perspective and background that helps people understand the historical and political context. We they have to make it clear that these are not problems inherent to Muslims or Islam. Violence and extremism exists in all religions. Blood-stained hands are found on the fringes of even the most placid of faiths – as the extremist violence of a minority of Buddhists against Muslims in Myanmar demonstrates.

Third, journalism can act to limit hate speech

Journalists and editors are faced with dealing with complex issues in the midst of polemical clarity. They have faced two challenges to report the attack itself with humanity and in a measured way. Most did. They noted that these were murders driven by a twisted political ideology. They killed their opponents irrespective of faith. Over a period of three days they killed Christians, Jews, Muslims and avowed atheists.

The second challenge came a week after the attack when Charlie Hebdo published its memorial edition, providing the second challenge to editors and publishers – to publish or not to publish the front page which, predictably, produced another cartoon of the Prophet.

For its part the Ethical Journalism Network published an article within a few hours of the attack advising journalists to defend free speech but also to lower the temperature and avoid encouraging acts of revenge or abuse of Muslims. We called for “slow journalism” and for newsrooms to think carefully about how to handle a story which could have an explosive impact on community relations.

As the debate raged over whether to publish or not to publish the Charlie Hebdo memorial edition with its controversial front-page, we published a second article urging journalists to rely on their codes and editorial traditions when making the decision, but above all to tell the story with humanity.

We urge journalists and media to make themselves aware of the dangers to editorial independence posed by some of the profoundly political and ideological hard-line positions being taken after the attacks.

It’s a complex debate about free speech rights and to help provide some relevant context the EJN is commissioning a report on how the Paris events are being reported around the world. In many regions of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, for instance, the media narrative is different from that in Europe. Our report will, we hope, add perspective and provide some fact-based background information to help forge an ethical response to the threats posed by terrorism and extremist propaganda.

Today we see how media are used as a weapon in information wars – such as we see in Ukraine and Russia – but this is not new. Propaganda in one form or another has always been used in times of war. But today, thanks to the internet and web communications, it is more pervasive.

Information and the battle for publicity it is at the very centre of warmongering. Terrorists, such as IS and al-Qaeda, are adept at using media and communications as a central part of their strategic work – Twitter, websites and sophisticated, quality videos of their most barbarous acts of inhumanity.

The success of the IS media strategy has compensated for the lack of political clarity and logic in its operations. Attacking France, which vigorously opposed the Iraq war, and outraging public opinion in Jordan this week hardly makes sense, but that matters little to a global organisation that relies on slick film-makers and skilful writers to pour its hateful message into a global system that willingly circulates and recirculates their work. This gives them massive propaganda victories and helps to inspire uncertainty and fear in communities they would never otherwise reach.

The events in Paris and at Charlie Hebdo remind us tragically that we must ensure that we don’t allow media to become the foot soldiers of those who want to spread hate and intolerance.


Photo source: Flickr CC H. KoPP
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