Can Europe Make It?

Charlie Hebdo and the right to offend

The right to offend, which the French secular republic with its long tradition of anti-clericalist satire holds particularly dear, is in everyday conflict with the values of the republic’s second largest religion.

Simon Dawes
21 January 2015
National unity march, Paris, January 11.

National unity march, Paris, January 11. Davide del Giudice/Demotix. All rights reserved.In response to last week’s targeting of the cartoonists and editorial staff of controversial and financially struggling Charlie Hebdo, the public, political and mediatic show of solidarity with the magazine has been overwhelming.

Although police officers as well as Jewish people were deliberately targeted by the terrorists, the initial narrative of the attacks as an assault on free speech has so far proven remarkably tenacious. The media coverage (particularly in both old and new media in France) in the wake of the attacks has been remarkable, not only for the unconditional and unprecedented show of solidarity with the satirical magazine and the united efforts to ensure its continued existence, but for the readiness to flout the right to offend and to republish the controversial images in a defence of an absolutist interpretation of free speech.

The response of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ media has, however, been less unanimous.

An attack on Republican values

As colleagues and friends had just been assassinated in retaliation for the content they’d produced, it is of course understandable that the rest of French media should feel not only solidarity with the victims, but potentially under threat themselves.

After all, it is not the first attack against journalists on French soil – in addition to the many years of threats and a previous attack against Charlie Hebdo, the reception areas of BFM TV and Libération had also been the target of attacks in 2013. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Médiapart released a statement jointly written with the rest of France’s indymedia to denounce an attack ‘on journalists, on the press, on freedom’, and streamed live a meeting of editors and journalists from across the French media sharing memories of their colleagues and expressing their commitment to free speech. Libération were quick to provide office space (not for the first time) for the remaining Charlie Hebdo staff, while Radio France, France Télévisions and Le Monde published a joint memo to offer human and material resources to keep Charlie Hebdo alive and to preserve the principles of ‘independence, freedom of thought and freedom of expression’.

The state has also been keen to preserve the publication, with the minister of justice stating that public aid was justified in keeping the magazine alive, and the minister of culture releasing a million euros for that cause (Google, The Guardian and the international public have also donated another million euros over the past week).

The march through Paris that was attended by an estimated 1.6 million (3.7 across the whole country), including over 40 world leaders and representatives from across France’s political spectrum, was made in the name of unity, or the republic, emphasising the ‘republican’ values of free speech and religious tolerance, with the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ motto elaborated upon to identify also with the individual victims by name, as well as with Jews, Muslims and the police. Another remarkable sign of solidarity was the applause that the crowd gave to police during an event that went without incident.

There was some controversy, however, not only over the diplomatically awkward absence of Obama (or Kerry) and the presence (and proximity) of both Netanyahu and Abbas, but over the absence of representatives from Morocco (on account of the images of Mohammed), and the presence of those from Algeria (where such public demonstrations are banned), as well as the absence of the increasingly popular Front National, who felt excluded from official proceedings and who are commonly dismissed by other parties as a party that does not share republican values. There were also criticisms of hypocrisy, as many of those present represented countries with dubious records on free speech and press freedom.

Blasphemy, racism and the right to offend

The show of republican solidarity with Charlie is with a very specific aspect of free speech, however. It is with the right to offend, a right which the French secular republic, with its long tradition of anti-clericalist satire, holds particularly dear, but which is in everyday conflict with the values of what is now the republic’s second largest religion.

French politicians and journalists have been quick to distinguish between racism and blasphemy, and to uphold the right to blaspheme, although not to spread hate against a particular race.

This is why last year’s censorship and last week’s arrest of controversial comedian Dieudonné (who on the evening of the unity march tweeted “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly”, in reference to both the magazine and the terrorist who murdered the Jewish victims) is defended by Manuel Valls (current prime minister, former interior minister, and self-proclaimed arch-enemy of Dieudonné) as not equivalent to a restriction of free speech. (Dieudonné has since been arrested for this remark, a decision criticised by some in the US, in particular.)

To say ‘Je Suis Charlie’, therefore, means not necessarily to approve of the content of the magazine, or to find it funny, or to condone racism, but to stand up for the right to offend, and for the right to blaspheme, in a secular and democratic republic.     

To be, or not to be, Charlie?

However, the refusal of some to show their solidarity – by saying, for instance, ‘Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie’ – has been criticised by politicians and the mainstream media in France as either a rejection of these republican values or ignorance of French culture and humour. And many of those who have declined ‘to be’ Charlie have also been on the backend of sharp criticism on social media.

In contrast, the reluctance to identify with the magazine has been covered less dismissively by online and international media, where the various reasons are addressed. Many people have refused to identify themselves with a magazine that has relentlessly published images that are offensive to Muslims.

Some refer to the diagnosis of a wider culture of banal Islamophobia in the French media, and the pervasive stigmatisation of the large but marginalised Muslim minority. Others have taken issue with the satirical merit of the cartoons, suggesting that they seem to comfort those in power, while afflicting those without a voice. Others still have been more forthright in dismissing the magazine as explicitly racist and Islamophobic. 

To publish and perish?

Similarly, while there has been no hesitation among the French media to associate themselves with Charlie and to republish its images of Mohammed, as well as other images that many Muslims have found offensive, the international media have been more reserved.

French media argue for the need to send a powerful message, not only by ensuring the future of the magazine and its right to offend, but to flout that same right themselves, and they have shown frustration with mainstream Anglo-Saxon media, such as The Telegraph and CNN, for ‘cowardly’ censoring Charlie’s images, while praising those publications, such as The Washington Post, that have ‘courageously’ opted to publish them. An Associated France Presse journalist based in the US even tweeted a disclaimer that any newspaper publishing pixelated versions of AFP accredited images did so at their own discretion.

More generally, there has been a clear split between English-language old and new media, with the former more reluctant than their online counterparts to publish material that may offend religious groups (and the BBC sending mixed messages about their own editorial stance on the issue). That said, there has been less hesitation to publish the front cover of this week’s ‘survivors’ edition of Charlie Hebdo, which has an even more obvious news value – although decisions, such as The Guardian’s, to warn their readers that they may find the image shocking, have also been derided.

Elsewhere, many pro-press freedom organisations united on the day following the attack to publish en masse many of the most controversial images. Others, however, chose to express their solidarity by publishing cartoons on a wider range of issues, rather than those that simply aimed to provoke Muslims, to show support for (more nuanced accounts of) free speech and the right of the cartoonists to blaspheme, without going so far as to actually republish the images themselves.

Rights and responsibilities

Now the debate is moving on – to the question of a ‘Patriot Act (or Guantanamo) à la française’, and the extent to which surveillance powers need to be increased without infringing upon the values of the republic (such as privacy and free speech).

But debate will not be helped by simplistic notions, such as an absolutist and all-encompassing interpretation of free speech. There are all sorts of legitimate limits to free speech already enshrined in our laws or constitutions, and there are all sorts of different rights subsumed under the banner of free speech – some flout the right to offend and blaspheme, some flout the right to invade the private lives of public figures, some the right to hold power to account.

While French media is proud of the first, it sees the second as anti-democratic/anti-republican, unsavoury and peculiarly ‘Anglo-Saxon’, and has been disappointingly ineffective with the third – the privacy of politicians, in particular, is considered another ‘republican value’ that almost always trumps the right to free speech in France, while claims of media independence are undermined by the especially close links between French media and the state.

While the wounded French media have come out in force over the past week to protect their right to offend in the most explicit terms, the Anglo-Saxon media have responded with a more nuanced account of free speech, and a more considered appreciation of the balance between the right to offend and the responsibility not to.

Free speech can mean many things, and even between countries such as the US, the UK and France, there are big differences in how it is understood and regulated. It is therefore inevitable that behind the universal condemnation of a terrorist attack, there are differences in how solidarity is shown.

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