Can Europe Make It?

Charlie Hebdo: Free speech, but not as an absolute value

Debates over what limits to free speech are acceptable are entirely valid – whether or not we approve of Charlie Hebdo images, or their mass republication on numerous websites this week. 

Simon Dawes
9 January 2015
 Paris demonstration against terrorism, January 7.

Paris demonstration against terrorism, January 7. Tom Craig/Demotix. All rights reserved.While police officers and other non-journalists have also been killed in recent events in France, the editor and other journalists killed on Wednesday were of course the immediate and initial target of (or excuse for) the attack. In the wake of the massacre of much of the editorial team of Charlie Hebdo, there has been an international rush to express solidarity with the victims by identifying with the magazine (on and offline) through the motto JeSuisCharlie, even among those who have never read or even heard of the magazine, and representing the attack not just as a terrorist attack on France or a vague notion of western civilisation, but more specifically as an assault on journalists that epitomised the very idea of free speech and ‘western’ values.

There have also been those who have also sought to express their solidarity while refusing to identify themselves explicitly with Charlie, because they find its content offensive. Many outside France, who are unfamiliar with the publication, are understandably wary of identifying too closely and quickly with something that may be, or may seem, racist, while many in France are reluctant to identify themselves with a publication they have long felt stigmatised them or others. The overwhelming international rush to identify with Charlie is thus treated as a rash gesture by the more wary well-wishers, some of whom see the magazine as anti-democratic (and even anti-French) as well as Islamaphobic. One may not find funny or acceptable the deliberately provocative and ostensibly offensive images of Mohammed, nor those of the Pope or successive French presidents, or even of Muslims in general.

Some have stressed, however, that the paper has been egalitarian in its offensiveness, refusing to spare anyone, whether those in positions of power or those marginalised and stigmatised in French society (others, on the other hand, have stressed the opposite). It has certainly been resolutely provocative, insisting on its right to be controversial, even and especially at the most sensitive and dangerous of times – even when government ministers have pleaded with the editors to not fan the flames at times of racial tension.

Some have argued that its images, while offensive when seen for the first time outside of their context, actually work on multiple layers, often juxtapositions of unrelated topical stories only immediately comprehensible to a contemporary French audience, and even then, not that immediately, and certainly not to everyone’s taste. Indeed, there are valid and convincing reasons for criticising the paper for having contributed to the stigmatisation of Muslims in France, and a more widespread banalisation of Islamaphobia that some have diagnosed in the French media, as well as for seeing it as a publication made by, and for, a predominantly white and male dominant class.

Nevertheless, there are those who have instinctively reacted to this event by proclaiming that free speech – and, by extension, a free press – is an absolute right. Further, that Charlie Hebdo is representative of this right – and, by extension, all western values. The danger is that this claim can be expressed strategically to justify the representation of Muslims as fundamentally opposed to such western values, as well as the need for greater state surveillance to monitor potential terrorists and prevent terrorist attacks.

In the UK, it has even been appropriated by the tabloids to criticise recent ‘liberal attacks’ on widespread, covert and illegal state surveillance (such as The Guardian’s printing of Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA/GCHQ programmes) – and, by extension, justify the tabloids’ right to publish whatever they want, regardless of public interest standards, privacy violations or amount of offense caused.

Which, incidentally, leads to a further irony in the debate between press freedom and national security interests, as the renewed calls for greater surveillance powers may now be made in the name of protecting press freedom.

But free speech and a free press are neither the same thing, nor are they absolute values. Because of scope, scale and influence, the press have a far greater impact than an individual, and therefore have a greater responsibility to limit the offence they may cause. And both freedoms are always and already restricted anyway – by laws (of defamation, confidentiality etc.), by social norms, by their conflicts with other values (such as privacy or national security), and so on.

Those who have rushed to republish the controversial images that ultimately got the cartoonists (and others) killed have done so in the name of free speech, claiming that free speech is ‘non-negotiable’. But those same organisations have been critical of UK tabloids for printing stories in the name of free speech where it has violated other values, such as privacy, or failed to pass a public interest test, or where it is symptomatic of corporate power’s corrupting influence over politics and public life. Surely the recognition that free speech is a negotiable (and strategic) right in those instances undermines the claim that it is non-negotiable when it comes to addressing the offence taken at images of Mohammed, whether or not one agrees that their publication, or even republication, is justified.  

We need to discourage misguided and reactionary representations of these attacks as simply attacks on free speech, and acknowledge that free speech itself is not an absolute value. We must recognise the validity of debates over what limits to free speech are acceptable – whether or not we approve of the kind of images that Charlie Hebdo has published, or with their mass republication on numerous websites this week.

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