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New Charlie Hebdo issue: finding balance between rights and morals in media

19:17 | 20.01.2015 | Analytic


20 January 2015. PenzaNews. The worldwide community has split over the Charlie Hebdo issue No. 1178, originally printed at 3 million copies. However, the increased demand caused the journal to increase the print run 5 million, later – 7 million copies. The “survivors’ issue” released on January 14, 2015, featured a cover cartoon that depicted the Prophet Mohammad holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, titled "Tout est pardonné” (All is forgiven).

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This was the first issue of the French magazine since the brutal January 7 attack. Only a few hours after the release of the previous issue that featured the drawing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State radical group, two armed men burst into the Charlie Hebdo headquarters. 12 people, including two policemen and editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier, were killed in the attack.

Over 2 million people condemned the act of terrorism and shown their solidarity with Charlie Hebdo during Republican marches that took place on January 11. At the same time, leaders and representatives of Muslim communities in France, Britain, Canada, US, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other countries stated the attack completely violates the Islamic ideals.

However, the cover of the “survivors’ issue” has caused massive public outcry and numerous protests in Pakistan, Niger, Algeria, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Russia and other countries, with demands to stop discrimination against Muslims. The protesters also denounced the strategy chosen by Charlie Hebdo that deepens the hatred between nations and religions.

Uwe Halbach, Senior Associate at Eastern Europe and Eurasia research division of the German Foundation for Science and Politics, expressed his skepticism about the decision to publish the “survivors’ issue” with a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad on the cover.

“I am on the side of solidarity for ‘Charlie Hebdo’ and totally on the side of giving a clear message to religious violence. But I would say we have to accept that a caricature of the prophet [Muhammad] is a serious challenge for any Muslim,” he stressed.

According to the expert, the attack against the satirical magazine has absolutely no justification; however, the event must become a start for the public debate on whether certain actions are morally acceptable.

“I think we have to think about the degree of provocation, of insult, which can come even from satire. "I am also a partisan of the freedom of speech, but we should think about how far it goes in insulting others. For me personally, there are certain lines,” Uwe Halbach explained.

At the same time, Johann Bihr, head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk of Reporters Without Borders, clarified that Charlie Hebdo did not abuse its freedom of expression from the legal point of view.

According to rights activist, the content published by the magazine are fully compliant with norms and statements of the European Convention of Human Rights, and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“An important thing to note is that ‘Charlie Hebdo’ is a satirical paper. By definition, cartoons and satire imply excess insolence, sometimes a share of exaggeration, irony, et cetera. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly stressed that these are parts of freedom of expression, that freedom of expression includes the rights for cartoons to sometimes go further than what people are used to see. Freedom of expression includes not only the ideas that are widely welcomed or accepted, but also the ideas that shock, that worry the majority of the population of a certain country,” he said.

According to Johann Bihr, this position is further supported by the decision made by the French authorities during a February 2007 court process that began when Charlie Hebdo reprinted the notorious Mohammad cartoons first published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006. The Paris court decided that the magazine did not violate the law and simply used its freedom of speech.

At the same time, the expert noted that the events in France created “very interesting questions on the boundaries and the mutual relations between the right to free expression and the right to religion.”

In his turn, Jean-Marie Fardeau, France Director of Human Rights Watch, stated that HRW condemns the acts of terrorism and urges the authorities to punish the attackers. However, he warned that the attacks must not be used as a cover for introducing limitations to the freedom of speech or violating human rights under the pretext of protecting the public.

“The only line not to be crossed is call for violence against minorities, people, individuals,” the human rights activist reminded in an interview to PenzaNews agency.

At the same time, the expert explained that every journalist bears responsibility for his or her material and chooses whether it should be published under current circumstances.

Jean-Marie Fardeau condemned the Charlie Hebdo attack and stressed that such an atrocity has no absolutely justification.

“There are many means to protest against cartoonists or journalists – either through justice, trial, or by combating through other media. Violent attacks against journalists – harassment, beatings or killings – are unacceptable,” he added.

Meanwhile, Mattia Toaldo, Policy Fellow for Middle East and North Africa at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), said the way Muslims all over the world reacted to the January 7 shooting has great importance.

“They distanced themselves from these attacks, which have nothing to do with Islam. I think isolating these people [extremists] politically and culturally is very important,” the expert said.

In his opinion, freedom of speech must have certain limits to eliminate any potential of abusing it for inciting violence and discrimination against others.

“I am not sure there are universal guidelines. I think a lot of this has to do with the wisdom of each individual, and should not be enforced by law. If there is a population that is discriminated in a particular society, making jokes about that population is particularly heavy,” Mattia Toaldo said, adding that similar cartoons aimed at African Americans would cause great outburst of critique and anger in the United States.

At the same time, he greatly stressed that using violence against journalists is never acceptable.

“Whatever is in that paper, it will never justify the attack,” the ECFR Policy Fellow said.

John Laughland, Director of Studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in France, holds the same position.

“I think no reasonable person would regard murder as the appropriate response to an offensive cartoon,” he noted.

At the same time, he suggested that Charlie Hebdo strategy sometimes balanced on the brink of what is acceptable.

“They claim that they have the right to insult religions and people's religious feelings. I think that they did cross the line. When we talk about freedom of expression and freedom of speech, we mainly think about the right to express a political opinion and the right to put information into the public domain. Charlie Hebdo was not putting any information into the public domain; it was not expressing a political view or taking part in a political debate. It was simply publishing cartoons whose purpose was to shock people and shock religious sensibilities,” the expert explained, saying that the journalists themselves called their magazine “irresponsible.”

At the same time, he reminded that Charlie Hebdo satire was mostly aimed at Catholicism, and noted that certain acts of expression do attract attention from the law.

“Last year, a comedian was prevented by the public authorities from insulting the memory of the Holocaust in France. So there are clear examples even in France of the law being used to restrict freedom of expression when it is a matter of insulting things which people hold sacred. It just so happens that Charlie Hebdo was never prosecuted. But if you insult the memory of the Jewish Holocaust or the Jewish religion, then I think the reactions would be very different,” John Laughland clarified.

However, he stressed that even such acts can and must never be punished by brutal terrorist attacks.

“I am not saying for a minute that the journalists there [provoked] their deaths, they certainly did not. And I condemn, like everybody, in the strongest possible terms the act of Islamic barbarism which was carried out in France,” said the expert.

Nadezhda Azhgikhina, Secretary of the Journalists Union of Russia, Vice-President of the European Journalists Association, also stressed this point.

“Our colleagues died. I doubt that thousands of people who went out to the streets of European cities, cities all over the world, including Russia, were all avid supporters of the magazine. But they all were strongly against the slaughter of journalists, and paid respects not only to the French cartoonists, but many other journalists who lost their lives in the last few years. It does not matter what radical ideas they had, and it is completely unimportant whether they were religious, atheists, communists, pacifists or not. They were killed, and it is the worst thing. This may not and will not be left without any reaction from their colleagues and all people. It is a point of no return,” she reminded.

According to the expert, the issue of limitations to freedom of speech is highly intricate, and most countries solve it using established moral norms, media self-regulation, and public opinion.

“One of the cornerstones of media ethics in any and all countries is ‘Thou shalt not harm.’ Freedom of speech in journalism is inseparable from responsibility. Mostly the balance is preserved by moral norms developed through a discussion between the professional community and the public. The law may not account for all details and particularities,” explained the Secretary of the Journalists Union of Russia.

From her point of view, numerous countries, including Russia, has great need in a public debate on this highly problematic issue.

“It is high time to speak about what the journalism theory, the journalists, and, by the way, the audience – they are also involved in the media – can say about our profession, about the role of reporters in the process of depicting and improving our life,” Nadezhda Azhgikhina stressed.

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