“I am Charlie” — the slogan of solidarity with the murdered editor, cartoonists and journalists of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly — caught fire on social media and in spontaneous demonstrations that spread throughout Europe. Sadly it is too late for the dead journalists, and later than you think for press freedoms that have been badly eroded worldwide.
The hope must be that the assassinations may waken political and media leaders to understand what is at stake.
French President Francois Hollande went rapidly to the scene to condemn the murders as an attack on the values of France. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron stood shoulder-to-shoulder offering support to Hollande.
U.S. President Barack Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon separately condemned the “despicable” outrage. Without wishing to accuse these leaders of hypocrisy — I know they are horrified by what happened — they have contributed to a remorseless undermining of the freedom of the press, so vital to good government and governance.
In Asia, the challenge is more pointed. China’s leader Xi Jinping is assiduously stifling freedom of expression. Gmail, Google’s email service, was recently blocked for days. Xi has demanded that universities do more to promote Marxist doctrine and Communist Party ideological guidance.
“Enhancing [party] leadership and party-building in the higher learning institutions is a fundamental guarantee for running socialist universities with Chinese features well,” Xi was quoted by Xinhua, the official news agency.
In Japan, the danger is more insidious, with a prickly prime minister who resents criticism, reporters too cozy with people they are supposed to be reporting on, and a general wish not to challenge harmony with awkward questions.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo was professional, coldblooded, commando-style, apart from a shout of “Allahu Akhbar (God is great).” Using Kalashnikov AK-47s, the assassins did not spray bullets around in fury but used single shots to kill the editor and other journalists at their weekly news meeting. They called out their victims by name. Then they coolly made their way back to their black Citroen getaway car, pausing only to go over to a wounded policeman pleading for mercy and shoot him in the head. The policeman, Ahmed Merabet, was himself a Muslim, as was one of the victims at the magazine.
Charlie Hebdo lived at the extreme, poking fun at all established beliefs. Charlie fearlessly lampooned its victims: not only Muhammad and Islam, but Jews, Christians, the pope, culture, politicians of all colors. The Prophet Muhammad was named “guest editor” of a spoof “Charia [Shariah] Hebdo” after the victory of the Tunisian Islamic party in 2011. Its cover cartoon has a smirking Muhammad declaring, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”
For that, Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed. Part of the tragedy is that radical Muslims refuse to see the joke, or that the way to attack back is with the pen, not with the sword or Kalashnikovs.
Critics may ask why the fuss over the deaths of 12 people, a small number compared with those who will die every day of natural and unnatural causes, of religious violence, in road accidents, in refugee and prison camps or fleeing from repression. On the same day as the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, 37 people died in Yemen from an al-Qaida car bomb.
Stephane Charbonnier, the murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo, said after the 2011 bombing of his offices that it was an attack on freedom of speech, without which we — all humanity — lose something precious.
This was an attack on democracy. Hollande declared that “freedom will always be stronger than barbarism”, and supporters of Charlie Hebdo suggested that the right response was to laugh at the killers into the dustbin of history.
However, leading international news organizations have been cowed into caution. The Associated Press, CBC and CNN all refused to show the offending cartoons that provided the excuse for the violence, saying that they did not want to provoke further hostility.
There are two immediate dangers: copycat killings by other Muslim fanatics; or revenge attacks by outraged right-wing elements already aggrieved that Muslims will not conform to key practices of French life and customs. A couple of sparks could light a fire. Muslims make up almost 10 percent of France’s 66 million people, many living in shabby banlieues (suburbs) of Paris and other cities, so there is dangerous potential.
The French Republic was built on principles of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood). French people, along with other Europeans, are unhappy that, although most Muslims live peacefully within society, a growing number of radicals reject Western ideas of tolerance.
More than 25 years after Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” was published, the Muslim community as a whole has not come to grips with the idea that its religion might be criticized or Muhammad even depicted.
Charlie Hebdo is uniquely disrespectful, but within centuries-old traditions of political cartoons. Cartoonists from William Hogarth in the 18th century took great glee in savaging politicians and princes, and exposing the injustice of society. James Gillray in 1791 showed the head of then British Prime Minister William Pitt as a toadstool growing out of a dunghill, an attack simultaneously on King George III, who was the fount of Pitt’s appointment.
A charge of hypocrisy may seem extreme, but Obama and leaders of other professed democratic countries should consider the wider and bigger threat from the daily erosion of press freedom, which is being squeezed by governments that prefer to operate in secret, and news organizations that lack imagination, guts and budgets.
Obama, like India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been notably shy of holding open press conferences. They prefer carefully controlled interviews to favored correspondents or news organizations or highly predictable conferences. Obama’s regular outreach is via social media.
Every day I receive a clutch of bulletins from The White House, including videos, pictures, news stories and messages and speeches, some purportedly penned by the president himself.
This is the new way, direct outreach to The People, where the president calls the shots and does not have to respond or amend policies in the light of criticism, which rarely reaches him anyway. Other leaders do not have the courtesy to offer a personal touch, but issue edicts through the party organ or the tame parliament.
On the other side, few news organizations have the wherewithal, let alone the time or imagination, to go beyond superficial coverage. TV, even my favorite BBC World, has become more and more headline tabloid, interspersed with outrageously selfie self-promotions. We should be grateful to the Financial Times and New York Times for their illuminating ability to probe global issues.
But more needs to be done to widen, not curb, press freedom. Social media added new voices but contributions frequently lack focus, precision, and are often beside the point. Indeed, comments, even to a sophisticated serious newspaper like The Guardian, are notable for their anger and inanity, where they are not trivial.
There is little prospect that social media can frame constructive debate, enlightenment, healing or point a way forward on leading issues of today.
More than 200 years ago when life was much simpler, the United States’ founding fathers understood the importance of a free press in debating, analyzing, probing and arguing policies to improve decisions before they were cast in stone. How much more so in today’s complex world.
Thomas Jefferson memorably proclaimed: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Kevin Rafferty was in charge of the Asian coverage of the Financial Times, and then edited daily newspapers in Hong Kong, India, Malaysia and Thailand. He just resigned as a professor at Osaka University after the university’s president decreed that he could not publish or write anything unless it was censored to conform with the intention of Osaka University.