Je Suis Charlie: journalists must defend freedom of expression

‘The appalling massacre at Charlie Hebdo promises to make 2015 yet more deadly for journalists’

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." – John Milton, Areopagitica

It is an uncomfortable reality that the defence of free speech inevitably involves defending the right to promote often what is perceived as unpleasant, wrong and offensive speech. “If liberty means anything at all,” George Orwell observed, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

That is the very definition of journalism, publisher Lord Northcliffe used to say. “All the rest is advertising”.

And last year, according to a global estimate by Reporters without Borders, practising that right to tell people what they do not want to hear cost 64 journalists their lives. Over a third died in crossfire in war zones, but some 40 per cent were deliberately targeted for murder, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports.

The appalling massacre at Charlie Hebdo promises to make 2015 yet more deadly for journalists. It adds to what appears to be a growing perception of journalists not only by jihadist groups but by many others as legitimate targets, effectively combatants. Evidence, sadly, that ultimately the pen is not mightier than the sword or gun.

Much has and will be made in the aftermath of the attack, and of other similar attacks on freedom of speech, of the fact that it is not and can never be an unqualified right. The old, and unexceptionable exceptions are trotted out – defamation, incitement to murder, shouting fire in a crowded room, and then the greyer more ambiguous exceptions, incitement to hatred, holocaust denial, and insulting God . . .

The arguments then move from issues to do with protecting life and social order, and the right to a good name, to the less tangible, less universally accepted, right not to be offended and the desirability in a civilised society of a degree of civility and courtesy in the conduct of debates.

But this can also be a slippery slope. There is the danger that in conceding that freedoms can justifiably be limited we turn the discussion into one in which we are considering how much the victim of an attack on freedom of speech like Charlie Hebdo was to blame for its own fate – much like a discussion on rape that focuses on how short the victim's skirt was.

Provocative

That

Charlie Hebdo

was showing a lot of leg, was provocative, is beyond doubt. It has every right to do so. That is the nature of the beast. It was/is rude, obscene, irreverent, and anti-religious. Gloriously so. The last-published cartoon of the paper’s editor Stéphane Charbonnier, “Charb”, was even an image of an armed and cross-eyed militant with the words, “Still no attacks in France”, and the retort: “Wait! We have until the end of January to offer our wishes.”

Despite the unequivocal support and plaudits pouring down on the paper in the aftermath of the attack, such praise was not as forthcoming when it decided to express its solidarity back in 2006 with Danish paper Jyllands-Posten by republishing its cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.

"Is it pertinent, intelligent in this context to pour oil on the fire?" French foreign minister Laurent Fabius asked then, urging restraint. "The answer is no." The Great Mosque of Paris and the Union of French Islamic Organisations took Charlie to court for insult to their religion after it had published the cartoons, although all three presidential candidates (Nicolas Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal and the centrist François Bayrou) showed up in court to give testimony in support of the magazine.

The Catholic Church has sued the paper 14 times in recent years.

Charb, who has in recent years lived with a bodyguard because of resulting threats, saw provocation as his vocation and was not surprised by the attitude to his paper of the establishment, whose activities and lives he mercilessly lampooned.

Other journalists and newspapers were divided on the Charlie Hebdo republication decision. While there was near unanimous and passionate defence of its right to do so, despite acknowledgment that it could cause serious offence, most papers, including this one, took the view that compounding the hurt by republishing the offending cartoons would not help make the case for tolerance where it mattered most, in the Islamic community.

Appeasement

To accusations, that have also reappeared in recent days, that in doing so they were appeasing militant Islamists, they replied that it is the essence of debate in the pluralist media that each newspaper must be free to decide the bounds of debate and civility for itself.

Tactical disagreements, however, on the best way to protect both Charlie Hebdo and the important right to offend, should not be allowed to distract from the need to build a new European consensus in defence of media freedom, a robust defence of the necessity of the right to be irreverent and challenging, even to be obnoxious, and a new push to dismantle laws that inhibit that freedom – not least in Ireland, the repeal of our prohibition on blasphemy, albeit largely unused.

It is also critical that the response to the attacks does not become an excuse for the further marginalisation of the Muslim community either in France or throughout Europe. The danger is that the Front National and Germany's new Pergida movement will find in the killings fuel for their messages of hate, although the mood at rallies throughout France in the wake of the killings and the public statements from the Islamic community are deeply encouraging.

The slogan is simple, and says it all. "Je Suis Charlie."

Patrick Smyth is Foreign Policy Editor.