The January 2015 attacks on the satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, along with the related events that followed, have opened a pandora box into the French public debate. It is the questioning of one concept that has created a climate of incertitude in France and elsewhere: the one of ’liberté d’expression’, freedom of speech. Since the debate promptly spread around the world, there is little chance that the box will be rightly shut anytime soon.
Prior to the events, it almost seemed that the meaning of this notion was taken for granted, in the West at least. In January, the debate around the term arose in France. Ironically enough, the trigger was rather unexpected. One could have thought that the spark for the debate would have been the Parisian march of 11 January 2015. Indeed, when world political figures – not notoriously known for promoting free speech and for encouraging divergent opinions were at the head of the procession march where millions of protesters were chanting ‘freedom.’ Some questions should have arisen around our common understanding of the phrase. However, the awkward presence of the politicians, all known for their loose attachment to key democratic values, such as Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban and the Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, did not massively bother anyone. A few critics were heard, but everyone quickly got over it. Maybe it was still too soon to bring up such a thorny issue.
But what really disseminated confusion among the French population was when people started to apply their right to freedom of speech. However, not in the expected way. In response to the supportive ‘Je suis Charlie’ slogan, some started to write ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’. To be or not to be Charlie, that was the question. After such horrible events, how could one even think of expressing such descendent views?
The answer obviously lies in the history of decades of French Afro-Caribbean and Muslim immigrations, which has been facing continuous difficulties and discrimination. Whether we talk about the constant and ambient negative media treatment, the abusive police controls on this targeted population, the failure of some inefficient social and educative policies meant to help them integrate and prosper in the French society, as well as the still very present and painful French colonial history, there are many examples. Such background has given birth to a generation that is feeling abandoned by the state. Sadly but understandably, it can recognize itself more in the perpetrators of attacks than in cartoonists and journalists. Indeed, the terrorists were from sensitive neighborhoods, had schooling difficulties, and committed small penal act before getting radicalized. It is easier for such lost generation to identify to youngsters with similar ethnic origins, similar social and familial background and upbringing, rather than with satirical journalists that attacked at a few but very noticeable occasions, a topic which is for some an inherent part of their cultural capital: religion.
Not so surprisingly, that was not the answer that was looked for. The ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ supporters were dismissed either as provocative agents or as terrorist supporters. Instead of being heard, provocative rapper Booba was highly bashed in France for saying that he had ‘understanding of those that were not Charlie’. For that, he was portrayed as an idiot, and was told that he better should have ‘shut up’ by an in-fluent French talk show anchor. More understandably the very controversial comedian Dieudonnée was condemned by the French justice for saying that he was feeling ‘Charlie Coulibaly’, Coulibaly being the name of a third terrorist of sub-Saharan African descent, who did a related attack on a Jewish supermarket. The mix-race comedian justified himself by saying he was simply in disagreement with both the sides, and that his statement was one of ‘peace’. The question is not to know whether we agree with these declarations or not. It has to be realized that full freedom of expression has a cost, and that cost is the possibility that such diverging opinions from the mainstream emerge.
If we don’t allow that, then the boundaries of what can be and not be said must be clearly established. If not, how can one be the judge of what is allowed and what is not to say? In 2008, the cartoonist Siné was fired from Charlie-Hebdo for his writings which were described as anti-Semitic. Regarding the wedding and conversion to Judaism of the son of former president Nicolas Sarkozy with a Jewish heiress of an electronic goods chain, the Cartoonist said: ‘He’ll go a long way in life, this little lad’, therefore assimilating Judaism and social uprising. The shake of Siné relies on the fact that after World War II, France compensates it’s guilt for its past active collaboration with the Nazis, through acting strongly upon preventing the spreading of such stereotyping discourses. However, French-Jews are likely to be more well-off than French-Muslims, for the reason that Jews have been in France and Europe for centuries, way before countries’ borders were decided. Muslims have reached the country of ‘human’s right’ since a few decades only. Therefore it is logical that the social uprising of any recent immigration waves takes time to be achieved. So even if Siné’s declaration had some kind of truth, it was considered way too bluntly stereotypical and offensive for Judaism practitioners. Jewish defense associations complained, the writer was made redundant, end of the story.
From this conclusion, how can one consider that the prophet Muhammad caricatures were fine to be shown in France and elsewhere? The caricatures did offend people and hurt its followers, in the way the prophet, Islam and Muslims were represented. The Muslim community got offended and expressed it. Complaints were made but no actions followed. Despite the historical context that explains the special relationship that France has with its Jewish community, it appears very difficult to understand why the caricature of the prophet was let through by Charlie Hebdo, and not the declaration of Siné on Jean Sarkozy. Both did hurt the two religious communities.
Governmental institutions along with the media, in this particular case, have the duty to assess fairly what is right to say, do or publish. No distinction should be made among the group of citizens in democratic system, in France or elsewhere. But how not to question the partiality of certain decision, such as the banning of a pro-Palestinian demonstrations last July, under pretext of the possibilities of violent outbursts? That was a first in the history of France. And what about the banning of the Burka in public spaces? What to say about the girl that was sent home from school for wearing a long-skirt, meant to have religious affiliation? There is little doubt that this narrow focus repeatedly targeted on the Muslim population is partially due to the consistent, violent and negative representations made of this community by French and foreign media. To which, Charlie Hebdo contributed. Willingly or not.
Therefore, in such context, does the press not have an ethical responsibility towards its content? Should it not be either all or nothing? No distinction on what should or should not be published or broadcasted ? And if such unrestricted content is considered possible, let us remember the lessons of World War II, and that it is always easy to target the weak, the socially oppressed, the marginalized. While it is much harder to expose certain power institutions such as the ones related to finance and multinational corporations for instance. That can be taken as a real measure for freedom of speech, as the pressure faced when criticizing such dominant institutions are a real challenge to take on for media.
In Europe today, the vulnerable groups do not vary significantly from a country to another: the poor, the immigrants, the Muslims, the gypsy community, the Jews, etc. The media knows that. They participate to the public perceptions of these minorities. Freedom of speech is a funding democratic right. It must not be reduced and focused on the emphasis of already existing pejorative cliché, neither on the preferred targeting of negative attention on certain communities. If that is the case, then we need to critically re-assess its meaning, as well as the understanding we have of this notion.