by Frédéric Filloux
Anglo-saxon media that refused to publish religious caricatures should revise their position. This is the worst time to surrender to self-censorship and politically correctness. There is a too much at stake, here.
As I’m writing this column, sharpshooters are positioned on the roofs of my neighborhood, a hundred yards away from Place de la Nation where hundreds of thousands of people will gather in the memory of the 17 people killed in last week terror attacks. France is in a state of shock, the emotion is overwhelming, and the concern is growing as everyone realizes the size and depth of French Jihad networks.
While anti-semitic attacks are, unfortunately, not a novelty in France, the retaliation on news media now takes the shape of professionally executed targeted assassinations. From now on, every media publishing offensive cartoons could suffer Charlie Hebdo’s fate. This is what happened to the Hamburger Morgenpost: firebombed this Sunday at 2:00am — exactly in the same way as Charlie Hebdo was four years ago.
France is not through with terrorist attacks. Friday evening, hours after SWAT teams stormed the kosher supermarket, the Interior minister painted a grim picture of what’s ahead. ‘Over the recent months’, he said, ‘103 legal procedures have been initiated against terror cells, involving 505 people. There is not a single day in which I don’t take an operational decision regarding this issues’. More broadly, law enforcement estimates the threat at 1200 “potential jihadists”. Several hundreds of them are under surveillance.
On the investigative site Mediapart, former counter-terrorism magistrate Gilbert Thiel said this:
“Our problem, today, is that we went from 100 people to monitor in 1995 to 1000 today. Between 12 and 20 law enforcement people are needed to keep track of one single individual on a 24-hour basis. Then we discover that the individual’s friends and relatives need to be monitored as well. At some point, we’re swamped.”
To make the problem worse, counterterrorism experts quoted in Le Monde believe than 3000 to 5000 Europeans are fighting in the name of Jihad in Syria and Irak; half of them are said to be identified after their departure and 20% are coming back, most of them brainwashed and not in a sunny mood.
Unlike the September 11th era of terrorism where attacks were engineered from abroad, today, Al Qaeda and ISIS have been very good at exporting terrorism into the social fabric of Western countries, encouraging the emergence of widespread, independent micro-cells with people, usually coarse (as heard in the audio recordings of last week’s perpetrators), but quite effective at using kalashnikov rifles and explosives.
Let’s come back to the cartoons. I think news media that balk at republishing caricatures of the Prophet Mahomet are ill-advised. This is the worst time to yield to self-censorship and politically correctness.
I wasn’t personally a fan of Charlie Hebdo. Ten years ago, it published an article saying, in substance, that the newspaper I was editing at the time — 20 Minutes with its 3 million readers and a staff of 80 fine reporters and editors — didn’t deserve to exist. The Charlie Hebdo author said that he’d prefer that people read nothing rather than a free newspaper – a genre that was unanimously loathed by the “noble” paid-for news media at the time. Charlie was then under the editorship of a sectarian character, a friend of Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife Carla Bruni, a fact that helped him land a managing job at Radio France for a quickly forgotten tenure. At the time, the written part of Charlie wasn’t the paper’s best. But its cartoons were. Definitely. I deeply believe that satire and caricatures are an important component of free speech; because of this, Charlie has every right to exist and I really hope it will survive. (Frankly, I doubt it as most of its great talents have been killed.)
Among many comments I read, I spotted an editor saying that he doesn’t feel like putting his staff at risk by re-publishing Charlie’s cartoons.
I can’t disagree more. As unpleasant it is, I think it’s part of the job.
In February 1989, I was a young reporter at Libération when a fatwa was issued by Iran then leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against the Salman Rushdie author of The Satanic Verses. The first reaction of Libération was to publish large abstract of Rushdie’s novel. Needless to say, in the months afterward, we operated under serious police protection. To every staffer of the paper, this was obviously the right decision to make (we were actually quite proud our editors.) Later, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published 12 cartoons that trigged scores of violent demonstrations across the world, Libé republished most of the cartoons.
In his style, Charlie Hebdo went many steps further, its editor Stephane Charbonnier (“Charb”) was put on a hit-list by the Yemen-based, pro-Jihad, magazine Inspire, along with other writers and cartoonists.
In 2011, the paper a satirical issue titled “Charia Hebdo”, “guest edited” by the Prophet Mahomet with this front page:
[“100 lashes if you don’t die laughing”]
Quickly after, the magazine was firebombed, and English and American newspapers published this pixelated image:
And last week, The Telegraph, among many others, opted for a carefully cropped version of the photograph of “Charb” holding the controversial front page:
Certainly not the finest hours of the Anglo-saxon press.
Publishing controversial caricatures is a mandatory mission for news media.
First, because it’s newsworthy; readers must see by themselves what this is about without the filtering of virtuous editors who entitle themselves with the right to decide what their audience should or should not see.
Two, when it comes to caricatures, the line between fun, sharp and excessive treatment is blur. It is completely subjective. In 2011, Le Monde cartoonist Plantu published this drawing:
He might be seen by devout muslims as crossing a religious boundary (Plantu is one of France’s most talented and courageous cartoonist.)
Would the New York Times, The Telegraph and others, pixelize Plantu’s work as well under the pretext might find if offensive and retaliation might ensue?
Then what about real journalistic work, investigative series, video reporting, documentaries about such sensitives issues? If one day extremists decide to use rifles and explosives against journalists and documentary makers, to what extent will these cautious news organizations refrain from picking up great — but dangerously hot — stories ?
Over the last days, we’ve seen pundits stating that the millions people marching in France were the proof that extremism had failed. They are wrong. The battle has just begun, and it’s not the time to balk.