WASHINGTON – Je suis Charlie Hebdo. If “freedom of expression” is to be more than an empty slogan, Wednesday’s terrorist attack in Paris cannot be allowed to have the chilling effect its murderous perpetrators intended.
Cartoons crudely lampooning the Prophet Muhammad may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the right to speak freely must encompass the right to offend, without fear or favor. Obnoxiousness is grounds for denunciation but not for censorship – and violence cannot be permitted to intimidate journalists into self-censorship.
It is clear that for the moment, at least, the attack on the Paris offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was a miserable failure. Masked gunmen coldly assassinated two police officers and 10 journalists – including several of France’s best-known cartoonists – with the aim of “avenging” drawings seen by some Muslims as blasphemous. Now, however, the cartoons at issue are receiving wider exposure than ever before around the world.
This is a hopeful sign. But I fear it will be difficult to ensure that the Charlie Hebdo attack does not have a very different long-term impact. If we are not careful and vigilant, freedom of speech will indeed suffer.
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We cannot ignore the fact that while the pen is mightier than the sword in the moral sense, no one interested in self-preservation would actually bring a pen to a sword fight.
Stephane Charbonnier, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist and editor-in-chief who was among those slain Wednesday, had long been aware of the risks.
“I don’t have kids, no wife, no car, no credit,” he said two years ago. “Maybe it’s a little pompous to say, but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
As a lifelong journalist, I can only applaud the courage with which Charbonnier and his colleagues lived and died. But selfless bravery to the point of martyrdom will surely be the exception, not the rule.
A line will inevitably be drawn between steadfastness and foolhardiness. This, too, may sound pompous, but how and where that line is drawn will determine whether freedom of speech has any real meaning.
The wrong way to draw the line is with self-censorship, which in this case can be difficult to recognize. The central issue involves the way in which Muhammad is portrayed. Many mainstream Muslims consider comic portrayals of their prophet to be offensive – as, indeed, many Christians might consider similar depictions of Jesus. But in communities around the world, including the heavily Muslim suburbs of Paris, there are radical Islamic fundamentalists who consider drawings such as those published in Charlie Hebdo to be blasphemy punishable by death.
This presents a dilemma. On the one hand, most editors do not want to gratuitously offend their readers; if offense is to be given, there should be a good reason. On the other hand, editors cannot accept being intimidated out of publishing certain material by threats of violence.
Right now, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the tendency must be to err on the side of defiance. News organizations have an obligation to demonstrate that they will not be cowed – and indeed, many are doing just that.
But what happens a month from now, or a year from now?
I worry that the line between what is deemed publishable and what is not will shift subtly toward the side of caution. Most of the journalists I know seek to be discoverers of truth – and perhaps, through their truth-finding, instruments of justice. They do not actively seek to be martyrs.
If freedom of speech is to mean anything, we must avoid self-censorship. And if we are to avoid self-censorship, we must be able to protect and defend the right to make editorial decisions on their merits – which means being prepared to protect the journalists who make those decisions.
This means that media organizations and governments must provide adequate security measures so that journalists can do their work.
No one looks forward to seeing newsrooms turned into armed bunkers. But I fear the alternative may be to run the risk that journalists, perhaps acting subconsciously, will shy away from some controversial topics involving Islam.
The choice is clear. Bring us some helmets and flak jackets, and let’s proceed.
Eugene Robinson’s email is email@example.com.
For more columns from national writers, go to sacbee.com/opinion/op-ed
▪ Michael Gerson says the Paris attack shows what separates Islam from violent Muslim extremism.
▪ Charles Krauthammer proposes a $1 gas tax hike, offset by a cut in Social Security taxes.