The murders in Paris and the question of press freedom

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Our worst fear was that Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s supreme leader, would mark the New Year by sending a nuke to Sony Pictures for finally deciding to show the movie “The Interview,” which portrays his fictional assassination. To our pleasant surprise, nothing like this has happened: the rather inane movie appears to have bombed at the box office, and Kim has made no great protest against it since. He is even reported to be considering a moratorium on nuclear testing.

But last week, the horror shifted from Pyongyang to Paris when three Islamist gunmen descended on the office of the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo (short for hebdomadaire, which means weekly), and slaughtered ten journalists and two others in the name of Prophet Mohamed. This has made Kim so much less than the mad despot the Western press has made him out to be.

Overnight, Charlie Hebdo became a worldwide sensation as the post on Facebook, “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” (I am Charlie Hebdo), went viral as sympathetic first-world newspapers reprinted Charlie’s anti-Mohamed cartoons; as world opinion echoed French President Francois Hollande’s statement that the attack was an act of “exceptional barbarism;” and as financial donors made sure that Charlie continued to publish, with a print run of one million copies from its usual 60,000.

This was not the first time the magazine was attacked. On Nov. 2, 2011, its office in the 20th arrondisement (district) was firebombed, and its website hacked. Long before that, it drew a big lawsuit from the Grand Mosque, the Muslim World League, and the Union of French Islamic Organizations, after it reprinted on Feb. 9, 2006 the 12 anti-Mohamed cartoons which first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. That threatened its continued existence.


At the time, French President Jacques Chirac warned against “overt provocations” which could inflame passions. But future presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande and a number of public intellectuals took the side of Charlie by expressing support for the French art of satire. Still, the violent demonstrations set off by the Danish cartoons in front of Danish embassies in the Middle East and other parts of the world prompted the French government to tighten security measures around its diplomatic missions.

However, Islamist anger was quickly diverted to the “Innocence of Muslims,” a 2012 US-made 14-minute “trailer,” which portrayed Mohamed as a “child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester, and a greedy, blood-thirsty thug.” This set off a wave of anti-US demonstrations in the Middle East and everywhere else.

For all of Charlie’s anti-Islamic pitch, it was not known whether all those killed were personally involved in lampooning Mohamed. Nor were they previously warned of their oncoming fate, as was the Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie, whom Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned to death in a fatwa issued on Feb. 14, 1989, for his 1988 novel, Satanic Verses.

The fatwa on Rushdie carried a $3.3 million reward for his killer, and compelled him to go into hiding in Britain, with full security protection from the British government. In 2007, he was knighted by the Queen of England, but in 2012, he became the subject of an (anti-Rushdie) Iranian computer game. Those who might have thought Rushdie had survived the fatwa were quickly disabused a few days ago when Iran’s senior cleric Ahmad Khatami said the fatwa “is as fresh as ever.”

The victims of the Paris attack have been celebrated in the media as martyrs to press freedom. The emotion is understandable, but perhaps the statement could stand some examination. Certainly, none of the victims deserved to die, whether or not they had a hand in satirizing Islam. For murder can never be justified as a response to blasphemy or sacrilege or political satire. But it is easier to see the journalists as victims of a deranged fundamentalism rather than as martyrs to press freedom.

Freedom can exist only with justice, even in the hands of those who consider it their business to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. A journalist may feel free, even without any provocation, to deflate inflated political egos and deride the mighty and the powerful; but he may not be free to ridicule what other people hold as sacred or inviolable. There is no human right to offend, contrary to what some people may want to preach from their self-created thrones, and the ability to attack God or any religion has never been the proof of individual freedom. Christians, particularly Catholic Christians, may have a way of taking such abuses on the chin, but Jews or Muslims may not easily put up with them.

Thus, if Carlos Celdran, whom some conscript columnists would like to promote into some kind of icon for abusing Catholics and other Christians gathered inside the Manila Cathedral in 2010, had walked into a Muslim prayer assembly and behaved in the same manner, his misguided fans would probably have been eulogizing “the late Carlos Celdran” instead of merely lamenting the court sentence that failed to recognize his non-existent “right to offend.”

Weekly Charlie’s own history should have reminded its staff that satire is a great art form, but not everything may be satirized, without risking undue consequences. We have no way of controlling how people would react to what we say or write. In 1970, when former French president Charles de Gaulle died in his country home at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, eight days after a fire killed 146 people at nearby Club Cinq-Sept, the earlier version of Weekly Charlie, known then by the name of Hebdo Hara-Kiri (Weekly Hara-Kiri), deployed its most potent satirical skills to spoof the two incidents under the headline, “Tragic Ball at Colombey, one dead.” This was high political satire, worthy of the worthiest French man of letters, but the paper did not escape censure from the Ministry of the Interior, which banned the publication.

In fact, it was to circumvent this ban that the magazine changed its name to Charlie Hebdo, in honor of Charlie Brown, the lead character in the widely-read Peanuts cartoon, and as some kind of private joke on Charles de Gaulle.

Given the outpouring of support for the victims of the Jan 7, 2015 carnage and for Charlie itself, and anticipating a much stronger reader’s demand after the tragedy, there is every possibility that the magazine’s editorial vigor would geometrically intensify. After all, this is France, the original seat of liberte, egalite, fraternite, and the Rights of Man, and this is what freedom of expression in this century is supposed to mean.

But there may be something worth learning from the example of the original offender, the Danish Jyllands-Posten, which has refused to reprint Charlie’s own Mohamed cartoons, out of regard for the safety and wellbeing of its own people.

This restraint is admirable; it shows a genuine appreciation of the need to balance rights and responsibilities in defending our shared freedoms.

fstatad@gmail.com

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12 Comments

  1. Freedom of expression is a
    Human right, but it is not
    Absolute. We, as a civilized
    people should weigh the
    consequence of our actions.
    Although, murder cannot be
    Justified as a response to
    Blasphemy, political satire or
    Negative comments.

  2. Marshall McLuhan wrote “the Medium is the Message”, thus you seam to forget this most important point in your judgement of Charlie Hebdo. The right to communicate freely has more value than the content itself: there is no religion, no power, no oligarch that will block the right to communicate freely.

    The sick men that kill for religion and or for money, as we can see in the Philippines, are the social catastrophes, not the Charlie Hebdos of this World. Over 4 million people walked for this message in France today.

    How many walked in the streets of Manila for the Mindanao massacre? How many for the DAP scandal?

  3. Well said. I hope every professional pundit whose heart bleeds for unconditional free speech reads this.

    • The human right to offend is known by all children. Remember Aesop’s fable about “The Emperor With No Clothes”?

  4. The reason you have these views are because you are a religious man. Well people like me who dont believe in religion go about our lives in just an ordinary way. Now if you insult us we just ignore you or engage you in a debate. We dont kill you. What i think you religious freaks should do is all have a war together. You catholics believe in your god & your way of religion & the muslims believe in a different god & a different way of praying. If religion was so exact why have all these different religions. Why have people moved from the catholic way of christianity but consider themselves christians. Who is right, you cant all be right. But then to kill someone because he offended your religion well its just beyond me.
    Look how those people acted in the procession of the black nazarine, a guy died & they were trying to remove his body but most didnt care less it was more important to chant & push & shove & process. Look how easy it is here in the philippines to get someone murdered yet the murderer will still think he is a good christian.
    I have no problem with people believing in god but keep it to yourself, dont shout it to the world if people like me want to know about it let us come to you. But here you even have religion in your laws, but that shouldnt affect someone who doesnt believe. It just shouldnt.

    • concerned citizen on

      The exercise of absolute, unbridled freedom (which is not really freedom but license; freedom is not the right to do anything you want to do but the power to determine yourself towards your rightful goal) has been the bane of humanity throughout history, especially in the modern times. It is that same concept that causes untold suffering among so many people in the world in light of the insatiable desire for wealth of the very few, which was the root cause of the worldwide recession in 2008. And it’s still happening today. Championing the responsible use of freedom, which will promote peace and goodwill among men and women all over the world, needs to be advocated, and you don’t have to be Catholic to advocate it. You should ask yourself why you’re not advocating it instead of speaking against those who do.

  5. Another columnist writes that satire should be protected. It should!!! It must!!! Poking fun at craziness-behavior by others, being irreverent at the hard-fast rules of others (like “Kill the Infidels!” “And kill they who disrespect!!!”) is a call to action to leaders, teachers… and yes, parents and relatives as they rear the young… that insanity exists in this world. Even the Pope himself has written and spokenly passionately about Islamist extremists and the ethnic cleansing (and islam-against-islam killings) in the Middle East.

    • concerned citizen on

      Let us not forget that the terrorists are the Islam fundamentalists (maybe not even all of them) and not all Muslims. There are many peace-loving Muslims all over the world, many even more respectful of others than the non-Muslims, and when you offend their prophet to offend the Islam fundamentalists, you also offend the innocent Muslims. Indeed, the thoughtless use of freedom destroys peace among men and women.

  6. sonny dela cruz on

    What we learned from this tragedy is when you tell the truth, they kill you and your office is firebomb. If you lie and don’t tell the truth ask the SWS for a survey.

  7. Ano ang pagkakaiba ni carlos celdran kay pope francis?
    Si celdran ay hindi pope!
    Pero pareho silang nagsalita na masakit sa mga katoliko!si pope francis ay sa lahat ng kaparian!
    Meron bang nagalit o nagsabi na binastos niya ang mga pari?
    Dahil siguro siya lang ang may karapatan ang iba ay hindi at tinawag ati-katoliko na sila kahit sila ay katoliko!
    Mabuti kapag pope ang nagsabi,masama kung normal ka lang!

    • concerned citizen on

      Alam mo ba ang ginawa ni Celdran? Pumasok siya sa Manila Cathedral habang nagmimisa si Cardinal Rosales at iba pang pari (concelebrated or high mass) at naglakad palapit sa altar. Nakasuot siya ng damit ni Rizal nung pinatay siya sa Bagumbayan, at may placard na hawak-hawak at itinaas na ang nakalagay ay “Padre Damaso,” na ang ibig sabihin ay masasama ang lahat ng paring Katoliko. Ginawa niya ito habang nagmimisa ang mga pari, at ang misa at sagrado para sa mga Katoliko. Kung dun niya lang sa labas ng simbahan ginawa ito ay madaling ipagwalang bahala, pero binastos niya ang misa. Pinatawad na siya ng mga pari, pero may karapatan ang estado na ihabla siya dahil isang krimen ang ginawa niya (“Offending religious feelings,” Revised Penal Code of the Philippines). Tungkol naman kay Pope Francis, ama siya ng mga Katoliko, kasama ang mga pari. Tungkulin niya at hindi lang karapatan na pagalitan ang mga ito dahil sa mga mali nilang ginagawa. At pinagalitan niya ang mga ito para sa kabutihan nila, para magbago sila, at hindi para kutyain sila.

  8. Hey… so have you seen the latest cartoon about Pope and his message about ethnic cleansing against Christians?