Free speech and censorship in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre

Supporters hold Charlie Hebdo cartoons at a rally in Paris. Photo by Valentina Calá, Creative Commons License.
Supporters hold Charlie Hebdo cartoons at a rally in Paris. Photo by Valentina Calá, Creative Commons License.

In the aftermath of the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical political magazine, media coverage included cartoons featuring a pencil facing off against terrorists and their weapons. Some of the cartoons had a gun bleeding with a pen standing tall. The tribute cartoons are designed by multiple cartoonists around the world, and ultimately emphasize this message: freedom of speech will not die down in the face of these attacks.

As an aspiring journalist, I understand that freedom of speech is valued among those who must share news and opinions with the world on a daily basis. In these terms, the right to speak freely is simple. Journalists, authors, and even those with social media accounts, should be able to declare their views to the world.

The complexity of this issue arises when people take offense to what you have to share – and whether they think your words have a darker intention.

On Jan. 7, two gunmen marched into the magazine’s headquarters in Paris, shooting and killing 12 staff members, from the cartoonists to the writers to the editors. The attack was allegedly in response to a recent publication, which featured a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. The depiction of Muhammad is forbidden by Islamic law.

Many of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons question religious and cultural customs. Many can be deeply offensive to those who are being portrayed. But this should not prevent them from being shared. In an article for Salon, Lauren Miller writes, “The notion that a religion should be exempt from ridicule and censure simply because it is a religion, regarded by some with reverence, runs counter to the underlying principles of a liberal democracy.”

It is important to note that Charlie Hebdo is a magazine developed and published in a firmly secular country. Secularism is defined as a government’s neutrality towards religion in a country; it is a fundamental aspect of French culture and politics. Charlie Hebdo practiced and advocated this concept, arguably to an extreme.

The depictions can often be blatantly racist, a fact that is difficult to dispute. A range of political, religious and relevant figures have been put under scrutiny by Charlie Hebdo cartoons. John Galliano, Pope Benedict, an Orthodox Jew, and of course, the Prophet. Yes, some of these cartoons are stereotypical and objectify sacred parts of certain religious. However, the sentiments behind the cartoons were not as racist as they were made out to be. This can be misunderstood.

Satire, by nature, is a complex art and, as we must keep in mind, the core of Charlie Hebdo philosophy. It is crucial to see, many of the cartoons are a portrayal of an opinion seen by right-wing French politicians – not the view of the cartoonists themselves. In keeping with this idea, the cartoonists are often depicting racist sentiments which are voiced or implied by others who may have such political and religious opinions naturally.

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I do believe that many of these cartoons are offensive. I do believe that people associated with the religions and races which are mocked could be deeply hurt and even taken aback. Expressive, provocative, speech has this effect.

This does not, by any means, justify the attacks of the terrorists. Moreover, the right to express these controversial opinion cannot be revoked.

We must remember that the magazine has shown no hatred of religions, and this has been misconstrued when looking at their dark, almost vulgar cartoons. They are not targeting the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world; rather, they are sending a message towards Islamic extremists. Here, the line between free speech, and what can be perceived as a racist attack, is drawn.

The most recent magazine cover, following the terrorist has the slogan, “Je suis Charlie” printed boldly across it. Surviving columnist, Zineb El Rhazoui, spoke about the terrorists and the attack to The Guardian, saying, “We don’t feel any hate to them. We know that the struggle is not with them as people, but the struggle is with an ideology.” The cover expresses this, with Muhammad depicted to be shedding tears. Rhazoui emphasized the team’s willingness to forgive.

Expression of opinion may have dire consequences – but it also allows the world to evolve. Freedom to express should be a granted right, whether it comes in the form of satire or not. Karl Sharro, a satirist focusing on the Middle East, says, “We should reassert the rights of satirical magazines and radical preachers alike to express their views, and the freedom of anyone and everyone to challenge them.”

Photo by Valentina Calá, Creative Commons License.
Photo by Valentina Calá, Creative Commons License.

The censorship of views and thoughts will do a disservice to the press at large, and inadvertently, restrict us in our thinking. As Bill Maher, staunch liberal and talk-show host, says, “Free speech only works if there are no wavers.” When Islamic preachers and radicals express their unhappiness with issues like Charlie Hebdo, they are practicing their right to free speech. When Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists express their dislike for extremists, they do the same.

The freedom to express in certain nations is a gift, and one I hope to experience when I enter journalism. It is a gift to value and use carefully. Bearing in mind the consequences, any form of free speech, devoid of ill sentiment, has the right to be shared with the world.

Author: Meera Navlakha

Meera Navlakha has been a part of the Eye staff since sophomore year and has taken journalism all four years of high school. Currently a senior, she has been at SAS for eight years but is originally from India. Apart from journalism, she loves reading, going to brunch and re-watching episodes of her favorite shows. She can be contacted at navlakha33816@sas.edu.sg.

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