Paris attack sparks media debate on free expression


(AFP) – Blanket news coverage around the world of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, culminating in Sunday’s huge march in Paris, is increasingly laced with debate among opinion-makers about the limits of free expression and the right to offend.

The immediate aftermath of the attack, which saw Islamist gunmen storm the offices of the satirical French weekly and leave 12 dead overall, saw countless posts on social media in which Twitter and Facebook users voiced solidarity with the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, or “I am Charlie”.

Publications in Russia, China, Malaysia and elsewhere — countries that have been criticised for suppressing free speech to varying degrees — have said the magazine was wrong to publish cartoons lampooning Islam.

But others in the West have voiced their own unease with unequivocal support for the publication’s often controversial stances.

“The message was clear… that what is at stake is not merely the right of people to draw what they wish but that, in the wake of the murders, what they drew should be celebrated and disseminated,” Teju Cole wrote of the victims of last week’s assault.

But, he added in the New Yorker, “just because one condemns their brutal murders doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology”.

In an editorial shortly after the attack, The Guardian chimed in: “The key point is this: support for a magazine’s inalienable right to make its own editorial judgments does not commit you to echo or amplify those judgments.”

“Put another way, defending the right of someone to say whatever they like does not oblige you to repeat their words,” it said, after many Western newspapers were condemned by free-speech campaigners for refusing to reprint Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

The assault, the deadliest attack on France in half a century, has sparked a massive show of support, with more than 1.5 million people mourning the victims in the Paris march, including several world leaders.

In all, nearly four million people took to the streets of France nationwide, while thousands marched in European, US and Canadian cities.

‘Staunch defenders’

Many were unconvinced by the world leaders’ attendance in Paris, with London School of Economics student Daniel Wickham publishing a series of widely cited tweets listing the various moves against media rights made by high-profile attendees.

“So here are some of the staunch defenders of the free press attending the solidarity rally in Paris today,” he wrote, citing a litany of arrests, detentions and beatings of journalists by some of the countries represented at the march.

Several Asian newspapers, particularly in countries with a large Muslim population or where the government suppresses the media, condemned the attacks but argued against an unfettered free press.

The New Straits Times, the English mouthpiece of Malaysia’s Muslim-dominated government, published an editorial Monday under the headline “Perils of free expression”, suggesting Charlie Hebdo got away with what amounted to incendiary hate speech because it had a “position of strong influence” in the media.

“Charlie Hebdo had a following and cannot spread what is tantamount to a hate message with impunity. For what else can a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed in the nude be?”

China’s Global Times, meanwhile, argued in its own editorial: “The international community must jointly defend the magazine editors’ rights to personal safety, but this doesn’t mean they side with their controversial cartoons.”

But while some see a degree of nuance in whether journalists should be allowed to publish whatever they see fit, others such as Art Spiegelman are categorical.

The American creator of “Maus”, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, denounced the “hypocrisy” of US media for refusing to republish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons this week.

Spiegelman said the weekly had every right in 2006 to publish a controversial caricature of Mohammed.

“That cartoon was not making fun of the prophet, it was excoriating the believers who would kill,” he told AFP during a visit to Beijing.