Thursday, August 31, 2017

Freedom of Speech & Charlie Hebdo

“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.” 
- #Quote

Not many people outside France knew about the existence of satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, before January 2015 when two gunmen who claimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda stormed the offices of the publication and killed 12 people including the editor and the magazine’s star cartoonists. The killing provoked outrage across the world, and in France, hundreds of thousands of people marched through the streets in defense of the right to free speech. On the radio, television, and in newspapers, supporters of freedom of speech/freedom of the press—from Italy to the US—adopted the now famous slogan and logo, “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), created by French art director Joachim Roncin, and rose in condemnation of the killers for their intolerance of free speech.

But last year, in the aftermath of the deadly Italian earthquake, not many people held the same view when the magazine ridiculed Italy’s collapsed houses by likening them to pizzas and suggesting they were built by the mafia. No matter, the magazine, it seemed, continued to test the limits of people’s defense of free speech. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Manchester during an Ariana Grande concert last June, it published a cover featuring a decapitated British Prime Minister, Theresa May, with a header, “Multiculturalism, English style.”

This week, the publication is at it again. Its latest cover depicts Texans who drowned in the flood waters caused by the tropical storm, Harvey, as Nazis. The banner headline, “God Exists! He Drowned All the Neo-Nazis of Texas,” seems to be the magazine’s take on the ongoing White Supremacy debate in the United States, apparently ridiculing Texas for voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections seeing as he has been criticized for failing to condemn the neo-nazis and white supremacists during a riot in Charlottesville that killed one protester.

This latest cover has sparked controversy in the US, generating angry reactions on social media. In France, former minister of Agriculture and Socialist MP, Stéphane Le Foll, called it “extremely dangerous.” 

But a few others have wondered why there is so much outrage regarding this particular cover. Some even ask if the satirical cover was more controversial than remarks made by conservative commentator, Ann Coulter which suggested that Hurricane Harvey may well be God’s punishment for Houston’s election of a lesbian mayor.  

Whatever your position on the matter, Charlie Hebdo thrives on satire. The publication, rightly or wrongly, goes out of its way to provoke angry reactions from its targets. Over the years, its cartoons have catapulted it into international headlines and caused outrage especially in the Islamic world, with some calling for its editors to be killed. More than that, it has brought to the front burner a debate on the freedom of speech. Is it acceptable for defenders of the right to free speech to decide, on the basis of particular targets, whether to say “Je Suis Charlie” or “Damn you, Charlie Hebdo?” The other question, though, is: How far is too far? Or, is there such a thing as a limit to freedom of expression?

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  
S.G. Tallentyre 

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”  
George Orwell

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” 
- George Washington