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Letter: Freedom of the Press

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“I completely disagree with your opinion, but I will defend with my life your right to say it.” In light of the recent attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, it seems chillingly ironic that it was the eighteenth century French philosopher Voltaire who is said to have first uttered these words.

If he were alive today, it’s perfectly conceivable to imagine him working as a newspaper columnist, or news presenter for a major international network. Let’s imagine he’s at a specially convened meeting of the newspaper editorial staff, or in the office of the senior news producers. They are all afraid, and rightly so.

I can imagine Voltaire asking the exceedingly awkward question to his colleagues and management:  “Why don’t we show the cartoons? If we show the cartoons, this is how we defeat the enemy of freedom of the press?”

Reasons will be given as to why the networks or the news media won’t show the cartoons and my guess is that privately, or publicly, some in the media feel “the cartoonists were asking for it.” Here’s how they might articulate their point of view:

“The staff of Charlie Hebdo must accept part of the responsibility for this atrocity. They  put themselves in the crosshairs in overstepping the boundaries, deliberately provoking the outrage of the Islamic community. In fact, they had been warned, back in 2011 when their offices were firebombed. Freedom of speech? Yes! But, you can’t shout ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded building.”

And here’s what I imagine Voltaire might answer to that:

“No, you can’t shout ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded building, because yes, there ought to be limits to freedom of speech. For that matter, you can’t circulate images or text depicting adults having sex with children. We draw the line at language or images which would lead to the physical endangerment of others. However, when the cartoonists depicted mocking images of Islam they did not put people’s lives in jeopardy. They drew offensive cartoons which cannot be equated with encouraging adults to have sex with children. Neither is lampooning a religious taboo the same as deliberately trying to start a stampede in a crowded area by shouting ‘Fire’?  People are not being physically endangered by cartoons.”

The cartoonists  were like court jesters poking fun at us, they never put anyone in harm’s way. However, if you can prove that they did, then certainly, let’s throw the book at them in a court of law; but they did not deserve to be gunned down for what they drew.

Even to assume that the cartoons were legally blasphemous, how do you face a child whose father is now dead and tell them: “Well, your Daddy was partly to blame here. His cartoons made some people very angry you know. I’m sorry he’s dead, but it’s really partly his own fault.” Really? The man drew some offensive pictures, but he did not start a stampede in a crowded building and he did not support the physical abuse of innocents.

Secondly, Charlie Hebdo was well known for printing cartoons that savagely mocked Catholicism and Judaism too, but there was no outrage from the Islamic community when “our taboos” were attacked. There’s a double standard here; it is as if it’s okay to depict graphic images of sexual exploitation of children, as long as it’s not my children.

Other arguments for not printing the cartoons might be, “It won’t really make any difference,” or “France has the biggest Muslim population in Europe, so they have only themselves to blame.” But, we’ll leave those for another day.

Brian O’Nuanain

Bossier City, LA