Freedom of expression. Most of us take this for granted.
“I can say what I want, when I want, damn the consequences.”
As a journalist, I believe whole-heartedly in the freedom of expression as well as the freedom of the press. How could we make informed decisions if half our news stories were censored? We all have a right to know what is going on, no matter how ugly the truth.
What if we were too afraid to run a story? “A journalist always protects his or her source.” But who protects the journalist? What if we were too afraid to write or draw? Afraid of the consequences, retribution, prosecution. Afraid of offending the wrong people? Afraid of being silenced forever for speaking/writing/drawing our mind. The oppressors would win.
The staff at French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo didn’t fear – and still don’t fear – anyone. Everybody was fair game for their caricatures. Powerful and important people, events, various news items, religious beliefs and deities – controversy is always good for business. Their offices were fire bombed before, threats had been issued against staff members. Editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier was placed on al-Qaeda’s most wanted list in 2013. Did that stop them? No, it didn’t.
Five of their leading cartoonists, Charb (Charbonnier), Cabu (Jean Cabut), Georges Wolinski, Honoré (Philippe Honoré) and Tignous (Bernard Verlhac) were killed on January 7, 2015 because their work offended three people.
The attack at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris also killed Charlie columnists Uncle Bernard (Bernard Maris) and Elsa Cayat, Charlie copy editor Mustapha Ourrad, caretaker Frederic Boisseau, visiting journalist Michel Renaud as well as police officers Franck Brinsolaro and Ahmed Merabet. Brinsolaro was Charb’s bodyguard.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. You don’t have to agree on everything. It’d be a very boring world if everyone was in constant agreement. At the same time, people should allow for the fact that opinions and beliefs do differ. Some have aspects to them that outsiders might find funny, illogical or disgusting and everything in between. But when you truly believe, does it really matter what someone else thinks about it all?
Satire is meant to be controversial and thought-provoking. It’s meant to expose ridiculous aspects, poke fun at them, get the discussion going. It involves outrageous amounts of irony and sarcasm. But most of all, it invites people to laugh at themselves and the world around them.
We must have all been there before. Something slightly embarrassing was revealed about us we’d rather have kept under wraps. Oh well. You can either make a huge scene, or look at it for a moment and then laugh it off, because you do get their point.
12 people had to die in Paris because three men took offence at caricatures. In a free society, we have the right to offend and be offended. It is how we deal with offence that matters.
I am deliberately not calling the attackers Muslims, because that would be an insult to the entire Muslim population, the majority of which are kind, decent, respectful people and pillars in their communities. The #NotInMyName campaign is more relevant then ever.
Just because one of the attackers is suspected to have links to al-Qaeda and the others (by agreeing to go along with the attack) seem to share his extremist views, doesn’t mean that this act was sanctioned by anyone or anything. Least of all probably the Quran. The fact that the three suspects first reportedly entered Charlie Hebdo’s archives a few doors down the road and actually had to ask “Is this Charlie Hebdo?” should be testament to their combined mental faculties.
Every religion everywhere has its nutjobs. Christianity is no exception. I’ve lost count of the amount of caricatures I have seen over the years that depict either God, Jesus, angels, heaven or any combination thereof. But they don’t cause such public outrage like the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons (which Charlie Hebdo also published) and Charlie‘s own “Charia Hebdo” issue did, even though it is one of the Ten Commandments to not make idols of anything that is in heaven (a commandment Christians have promptly ignored for the last 2000-odd years). But just to be fair, Charb et al often drew caricatures of God as well.
Yesterday, three men armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades faced five cartoonists. And even though the cartoonists gave their lives, in the end, they still won. Their only weapons were pens and pencils, and yet they proved mightier than swords and bullets. Because someone somewhere else will continue to draw, to write, to fight for the right to freely express themselves. People will make it their career because they have something to say. Teens will start to illustrate to draw attention to society and how we treat each other. You can break a pencil in two, but that still leaves you with two pieces you can sharpen again to keep drawing. You can kill cartoonists, journalists, any one defending free speech, but someone else will continue their work, draw even more attention to it and call you out.
The remaining staff at Charlie Hebdo have released a statement saying next week’s issue will go ahead as planned, and the print run will be 1 million copies instead on 60.000. Various institutions have pledged financial help to ensure the publication goes to print. They’re calling it Le journal des survivants – The newspaper of the survivors.
France’s national motto is Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Liberty, equality, fraternity. And yesterday, in the office of a satire magazine, that first important part Liberty was questioned. Within hours of the shooting the French took to the streets, paying tribute to the staff at Charlie Hebdo who died defending their right to freely say and draw whatever they wanted.
“Pas Peur” (fr.: Not Afraid) and “Je Suis Charlie” (fr.: I am Charlie) people shouted, drew, tweeted as they raised pencils in tribute. By this morning, media outlets world-wide held silences and showed their solidarity by proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie.” The world is finally noticing how important free speech is and that it unfortunately still comes at a price.
And yet, the most eloquent responses to this tragedy were not made with words. They were made by the brush-strokes of their fellow cartoonists because a well-timed, poignant caricature still says more than a thousand words.
Asterix creator Uderzo opted for something simpler: bowing to his fallen colleagues.
I might not be able to draw, but I am able to write. I believe in the freedom of expression, will do my best to defend it, and tonight, I raise my pen in tribute.
Je suis Charlie!