A year after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed, most of them journalists, the satirical magazine is still a source of confusion and controversy over free speech rights.
In 2015 acts of terrorism by Islamic extremists – most recently in Lebanon, Egypt, Mali and, dramatically, a fresh series of attacks in Paris in November – provide ample evidence that the Charlie Hebdo attack was not an isolated incident of political barbarism.
The attack was part of a wider political and ideological struggle targeting universal values of democracy and human rights. It reinvigorated a debate over limits to free expression which first emerged a decade ago after Islamist extremists orchestrated violent demonstrations around the world following the publication of images of the Prophet Mohammed by the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands Posten.
When the Mohammed cartoons crisis broke out in January 2006 (they were first published in Denmark in September 2005) western media were divided on how to respond. A few republished the cartoons in solidarity with Danish journalists. Many decided not to republish them because editors felt it would be insensitive to Muslim readers, but some gave in to self-censorship amidst widespread threats of violence.
The Charlie Hebdo crisis led to more hand-wringing over whether or not publish the controversial front page of the first edition after the attacks. Again, some media decided to publish (although a small minority) while most decided against.
Religious sensitivities over Charlie Hebdo remain strong and not just in the Muslim world. This week the Vatican’s newspaper criticised the magazine’s anniversary front cover portraying God as a bearded gun-wielding terrorist, accompanied by the text: “One year on: the assassin is still out there.”
But the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano was not impressed. Accusing the magazine of “uncompromising secularism,” it said “The weekly is forgetting once more what religious leaders of every faith unceasingly repeat to reject violence in the name of religion….”
That’s true, but journalists will point to the rising body count of believers and nonbelievers alike in numerous acts of terrorism carried out by religious extremists which suggests that many on the fringes of established religion around the world are ready to use violence when it suits their political interests.
Many church leaders have a short fuse when it comes to media freedom and free expression. For instance, a week after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, Pope Francis condemned killing in God’s name but warned religion could not be insulted. “To kill in the name of God is an absurdity,” he told reporters. While defending freedom of expression, he also cautioned “each religion has its dignity” and “there are limits”.
“If a good friend speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched, and that’s normal. You cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people’s faith, you cannot mock it.” To some this sounded like a thinly-veiled endorsement of violence to counter blasphemy.
Most journalists are respectful of religious freedom, but they should not be brow beaten by religious leaders to create no-go areas of comment and opinion that deny the right to hear dissident voices and robust criticism.
Charlie Hebdo refused to be bullied. It has been a voice of uncompromising opposition to censorship in any form and it has paid a high price. In 2011 its offices were firebombed after it announced its intention to have a special issue with the Prophet Mohammed as a guest editor. And a year ago it suffered an unconscionable and intolerable attack in its newsroom.
The anniversary reminds us how journalists need to carefully balance free speech rights with the obligation to show humanity and sensitivity to the rights of others and particularly to guard against hate-speech – particularly from the populist wing of unscrupulous politics.
We have already heard these voices in the heated debate over the European migration and refugee crisis and in the United States where Donald Trump has made Islamophobia a central part of his pursuit of the Republican Party nomination for President.
Media must guard against being used to inspire acts of hatred or to encourage Islamophobia. They must do everything they can to lower the political temperature and avoid providing cover for abusive treatment or acts of discrimination against Muslim communities.
This is a time for slow journalism when everyone in media and even those would-be journalists outside the newsroom need to think carefully about the consequences of what they write and the images they show.
The colleagues who died at Charlie Hebdo were not champions of violence or hatred. Indeed, the magazine has always used its creative power to show that politics can and should be fought on a level platform in which respect for pluralism means that all opinions, even those with which we strongly disagree, have the right to be heard and no-one, least of all those who trade in murder and inhumanity, has a right to say otherwise.
But we should never forget that every country has limits on freedom of speech. As Gary Younge, writing in The Guardiannoted a year ago, the issue of free expression in the context of Charlie Hebdo is complex. France, for all its traditions of liberté, is where in 2005 Le Monde was found guilty of “racist defamation” against Israel and the Jewish people. In 2008 a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo was fired after refusing to apologise for making anti-Semitic remarks in a column. And two years before Jyllands Posten published the cartoons of Mohammed in 2005, it rejected ones offering a light-hearted take on the resurrection of Christ for fear they would “provoke an outcry”.
Far from being “sacred” freedom of speech is always contingent, argues Younge. All societies draw lines and set limits. These are often ill-defined and constantly shifting. There is continual debate about what constitutes acceptable standards of public discourse when it comes to cultural, racial and religious sensitivities.
This is why the Ethical Journalism Network is launching during the coming year a new campaign to promote free expression through ethical and values-based communications.
Journalism has its own cardinal principles embracing notions of accuracy, fairness, humanity, independence and transparency and these can provide a foundation for a new age of respectful public communications.
Find our more about the EJN’s work on hate-speech:
Read our Moving Stories report about how the media cover migration here: