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Freedom of speech

The recent violent attacks in France and Emmanuel Macron’s statements necessitate the need to examine freedom of speech

Freedom of speech
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In 2015, when two Muslim brothers stormed the office of French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 members of their staff including the editor, the world rallied to the cries of 'Je suis Charlie' (I am Charlie). The attack was the result of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that were routinely carried by the weekly. The French satirists are well-known for sketching cartoons with candour and scant regard for propriety. In the last few days, two people were beheaded and few others lost their lives in angry attacks against those same cartoons and French President Emmanuel Macron's decision to monitor the funding and activity of Muslim minority groups and institutions in France. Macron also proclaimed that France won't give up cartoons, in a direct defence of freedom of speech.

Macron's words also throw up the need to have an important discussion — what is freedom of speech? Dating back to the ancient Greeks, the word, "parrhesia", meaning "free speech" or "to speak candidly", is found in Greek literature around the end of the 5th century BC. Over the years, the constitutions of several countries imbibed freedom of speech and expression, which, over the years, became the backbone of democracies. To be able to speak, discuss, and criticize politics, religion, and any other issue without fear of persecution has been the bedrock of freedom of speech.

Now here's where Charlie Hebdo's cartoons start creating controversies. Meant to be satires, these cartoons truly push the limit of humour treading on irony and sarcasm but often relying on ridicule and blasphemy to drive home their point of view. They claim to be taking on the Islamist fundamentalists and despite facing numerous attacks, remain undeterred.

But I wonder if lampooning is the only way to express satire? Some of the best cartoonists in the world have created japes without offending sensitive religious sentiments. Perhaps I don't always understand Charlie Hebdo's brand of humour because at times, just like Macron's words, their cartoons seem to take a blanket view of Muslims as violent, evil, and regressive. Is it really necessary to poke fun at the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by showing a caricature of him drinking alcohol (considered 'haram' by Muslims) and lifting the skirt of a woman in a hijab? In the past, Charlie Hebdo has caricatured dead child migrants, world leaders, neo-Nazis, popes, bishops, Jewish leaders, and other religious, political and entertainment personalities. Recently, they even had a cartoon on the funeral of the beheaded French teacher, with officers carrying two coffins, one for the body and another for the head. Their intent, therefore, is only to shock and awe. It's like in the world of stand-up comedians — you'll find many who are rib-tickling hilarious without using a single word of profanity while some depend exclusively on crude language to elicit laughs. I believe that it is possible to be satirical without being boorish; if a magazine can't, then that's just creative lethargy and ineptitude.

Charlie Hebdo has my sympathies for the attack that routed its editorial staff but not for its editorial stand. I would rather defend the freedom of speech of news publications that dare to report investigative stories on terrorism, exhibit fortitude to take on their own governments with their unpopular opinion, and whose journalists stand by hard-hitting stories that help the common man. What do you get by lampooning religious figures like Prophet Muhammad? Do you end terrorism? Is hatred destroyed? Are you not fanning religious disharmony, provoking backlashes, and keeping the cycle of hatred well-oiled?

There can be no defence of the killing of innocents whether it's a knife attack in Nice or a bomb blast killing 24 people in a Kabul education centre. But in this increasingly divided world where hatred prospers more than love and brotherhood, why must we create more reasons for dissonance? It's also important to remember that sometimes just because we can, doesn't necessarily mean that we should.

The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal

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