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14 Jan, 2015

Freedom of expression too has a price – it’s called human dignity

By Ranjan Solomon

An assortment of world leaders assembled in Paris to pay tribute to the slain journalists who were killed in a savage attack that left twelve 12 people killed. The victims were all either staff of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo or security personnel. The newspaper which had become famed for its cartoons regularly ridiculed anyone that seemed a possible object of scorn. The journalists thought it fit to use their license for ‘free speech’ to caricature their objects in ways that were often demeaning. Even though they found themselves under threat and had to use security provided by the French authorities, they were unyielding. One would ask in retrospect if there was any moment when they sat in self-introspection about their actions. Or did they ever see it fit to ponder the sensitivities they were trampling over in their work.

Satire, in itself, has a defined purpose. It seeks to initiate moral or political change in society through the use of critical humor. Satirists believe that humor offers a remedial effect to certain patterns of behaviour. Satirists, however, tend to inflate issues to make a point. Their immediate goal is to entertain and their long term hope is that the message will ideally stick with people beyond mere entertainment value. Certain talk show hosts use satire to ridicule anti-people policies and highlight government contradictions and failures.

Where the Charlie Hebdo staff team entitled to employing satire to drive home a point? Yes and no. The slayings were a singularly barbaric act of revenge. But in some quarters, the news was greeted with celebration. Many deemed that the newspaper had contemptibly and time after time overstepped the limits to freedom. Its singular aim seemed to be to deride and upset those it did not agree with. Muslims were often singled out for the newspapers most offensive cartoons. Small wonder then, it needed official security.

Critics of Charlie Hebdo have often questioned its extremist stances. USA Today reports how “In the fall of 2012, Paris police called and urged Stéphane Charbonnier, the editorial director of Charlie Hebdo, to stand down on his plans to publish cartoons of prophet Mohammed in his satirical weekly. Charbonnier, who is also a cartoonist for the newspaper, refused, citing his rights as a journalist and the publication’s ethos of using satire to express its leftist, secular politics.” In a subsequent issue of the newspaper, the Prophet Mohammed was coarsely and vulgarly portrayed. The Prophet was seen naked and bent over. The French newspaper Le Figaro condemned Charlie Hebdo’s warned against “silly provocations.” Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, told France Info radio that the decision was like pouring “oil on the fire”. The uproar which followed compelled the French government was forced to close embassies, consulates, cultural centers and schools in about 20 countries.
Generally, Muslims are opposed to images of Mohammad and other prophets because of fear that they could lead to idolatry. They worry that statues or images of the prophet could be used as idols and that people might call upon them to intercede with God which would be against religious law. In the eyes of many Muslims this is blasphemy – the act of showing insult or disrespect to God and religion. This view is not a universally held view by Muslims. Progressive circles will accept a depiction and even use it to advance that image for spiritual purposes. Yet, the very fact that it brings out anger in an influential and large section of Muslims must make a journalist stop and consider whether caricatures should be used at all. Still more, journalists should ask: Can caricatures of the Prophet reach limits of crudity and violate the borders of decency. Charlie Hebdo repeatedly did just that. It said to the world: ‘Be damned with your views’. Even in the wake of the tragedy, it remains defiant. It will publish a cartoon in the forthcoming issue of the magazine and hopes to sell some 3 million copies riding on the back of the tragedy- a far larger number than it’s normal 60,000 copies a week. There is a visible arrogance that defines the newspaper’s actions. Charlie Hebdo’s lawyer Richard Malka told France Info radio: “We will not give in. The spirit of ‘I am Charlie’ means the right to blaspheme.”

The Charlie Hebdo episode also crosses the borders of religious bigotry. The journalists show blatant contempt for the Islamic world- a variety of xenophobia couched in their claims to freedom. Freedom is not about the right to express whatever comes to mind. It is a pathway to justice and mutual co-existence. Liberte, egalite, fraternite, is not about showing contempt for the other. It is about visibly demonstrating intent and ability to dialogue over differences and to find the highest common factors that provide the base for human dignity. Charlie Hebdo clearly has negotiated human dignity and, instead, replaced it with the right to debase one set of beliefs.

The journalistic fraternity has been guarded in its reaction to the affair. Several newspapers have refused to reprint the cartoons. Associated Press said: “It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.” They refused the option of reprinting the cartoon. Press freedom, and self-expression in general, differs vastly in the world, with even a liberal country like Sweden possessing laws that criminalize what’s considered hate speech and prohibiting expressions of contempt directed against a group or one of its members.

In a document titled: Limits to the restrictions to freedom of expression – Criteria and Application, Mogens Schmidt, Deputy Assistant Director-General, Communication and Information Sector, UNESCO affirms the right of freedom of speech and expression as fundamental to democracy. But, he said, for UNESCO, “Respect for freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs and symbols are two inseparable principles and go hand in hand in combating ignorance and lack of understanding with a view to building peace and establishing dialogue among cultures, civilizations, religions and peoples. All societies must comply with international standards advocating human dignity and human rights, including freedom of expression and respect for religious and cultural beliefs and values. Any conflict between the two must be expressed peacefully and constructively and must give precedence to seeking collective, lasting solutions. Given the importance of religion to peoples and to their sense of dignity and their way of life, respect for different religious beliefs is essential to international peace and security and to humanity’s progress.”

Finally, it must be acknowledged that the parade of world leaders also had in it Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu whose sympathies with those who were murdered in the Paris attacks and the attack in the Kosher restaurant subsequently did very little to give the mass gathering credibility. After all, Israel’s track record as an acute violent of human rights is, perhaps, unparalleled, anywhere else in the world. At the root of Islamic resentment for western double standards and hypocrisy is the intractable Palestine Question awaiting a solution for far too many decades.

Freedom must respect human dignity. When that is violated, it can bring out the worst form of reactions. If, nothing else, the murders in Paris, teach us that respect for religious sensitivities and racial divides must govern the limits of freedom of journalism.

*Ranjan Solomon is Director, Badayl-Alternatives, and a long time researcher-writer-activist on justice and human rights issues. His chosen area of specialization is the Question of freedom and justice for the Palestinians.