In Paris at­tack, clash on whether to limit press free­dom

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT - By John-Thor Dahlburg

Two con­flict­ing sides on whether there should be lim­its to the lib­erty of self­ex­pres­sion clashed vi­o­lently on Wed­nes­day in a usu­ally tran­quil side street on the Right Bank of Paris.

When it was over, a dozen peo­ple lay dead — in­clud­ing some of the most prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ists and satirists in France, and the po­lice of­fi­cers as­signed to pro­tect them.

Paris Mayor Anne Hi­dalgo mourned the slain as “martyrs of free­dom, of free­dom of the press, the pil­lar of democ­racy,” and called upon all free­domlov­ing peo­ple to hold a solemn march in their mem­ory on Thurs­day.

On the other side of the At­lantic, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama de­nounced an at­tack on the “val­ues that we share with the French peo­ple — a univer­sal belief in the free­dom of ex­pres­sion.”

“The fact that this was an at­tack on jour­nal­ists, at­tack on our free press, also un­der­scores the de­gree to which th­ese ter­ror­ists fear free­dom of speech and free­dom of the press,” Obama said.

The slay­ings at the French satir­i­cal pub­li­ca­tion Charlie Hebdo were cel­e­brated in some parts of the world be­cause it was deemed to have out­ra­geously and re­peat­edly abused its free­dom to mock and shock.

A mem­ber of the al-Qaida in Ye­men ex­trem­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, post­ing on the Twit­ter so­cial net­work, ac­cused the weekly of en­gag­ing in the “defama­tion of Is­lam.” As news of the killings in Paris reached the Mid­dle East, cel­e­bra­tory gun­fire was re­ported in a Pales­tinian refugee camp in south­ern Le­banon.

Almost im­me­di­ately, there seemed lit­tle if any doubt about the mo­tive be­hind what was termed France’s dead­li­est ter­ror­ist at­tack in more than half a cen­tury. On video filmed by eye­wit­nesses, the gun­men can clearly be heard to shout the tra­di­tional Mus­lim ex­hor­ta­tion “Al­lahu Ak­bar!” — “God is great!” — out­side the news­pa­per’s of­fice.

“We have avenged the prophet!” the men shouted as they fled, po­lice sources told French me­dia.

The at­tack in the Rue Ni­co­las Ap­pert seemed the lat­est chap­ter in a clash of val­ues be­tween the West and a ver­sion of mil­i­tant Is­lam that is at least a quar­ter-cen­tury old, be­gin­ning when Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini, Iran’s supreme leader, is­sued a 1989 fatwa call­ing for the as­sas­si­na­tion of nov­el­ist Sal­man Rushdie, ac­cused by some con­ser­va­tive Mus­lims of blas­phemy.

Press free­dom, and self­ex­pres­sion in gen­eral, dif­fers vastly in the world, with even a lib­eral coun­try like Swe­den pos­sess­ing laws that crim­i­nal­ize what’s con­sid­ered hate speech and pro­hibit­ing ex­pres­sions of con­tempt di­rected against a group or one of its mem­bers.

In some na­tions, such as North Korea, the me­dia are an arm of the state, or, as in Rus­sia, have largely been trans­formed into a gov­ern­ment mouthpiece. Re­fer­ring to the Paris at­tack, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin called it a crime.

Not al­ways to the lik­ing of French gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties, who en­deavor to main­tain good re­la­tions with the Arab and Mus­lim worlds, the clash over what lim­its to place on press free­dom has of­ten in­volved Charlie Hebdo whose mix of crude, of­ten ob­scene art­work and brash po­lit­i­cal satire has few if any par­al­lels in An­glo-Saxon me­dia.

In 2006, the left-lean­ing, icon­o­clas­tic tabloid, which reg­u­larly skew­ers a wide range

of tar­gets from the Vatican to Hol­ly­wood, reprinted 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muham­mad whose orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion by a Dan­ish news­pa­per touched off ri­ots in some Mus­lim na­tions. Some Mus­lims were out­raged that their re­li­gion’s founder was be­ing mocked, or even de­picted at all.

Five years later, after Charlie Hebdo pub­lished a spoof is­sue sup­pos­edly guest-edited by Muham­mad, its of­fices were fire­bombed and its web­site hacked.

The pub­li­ca­tion has been sued by sev­eral French Mus­lim or­ga­ni­za­tions, ac­cused of pub- lish­ing racist cartoons, but won ac­quit­tal. In 2012, French po­lice de­tained a man sus­pected of threat­en­ing to de­cap­i­tate the ed­i­tor-in-chief.

This week, the pub­li­ca­tion’s front page fea­tured one of France’s most con­tro­ver­sial writ­ers, Michel Houelle­becq, whose lat­est book paints a wor­ri­some pic­ture of France in a not-too-dis­tant fu­ture after an Is­lamic gov­ern­ment takes power.

Also in the lat­est edi­tion, Charlie Hebdo ed­i­tor Stephane Char­bon­nier con­trib­uted the car­i­ca­ture of what clearly is meant to be a Mus­lim ex­trem- ist — a bearded man with a Kalash­nikov and an Afghan-style hat — hint­ing at a ter­ror­ist at­tack some­time this month in France in the guise of New Year greet­ings.

Char­bon­nier, whose pen name was “Charb,” was one of those killed Wed­nes­day.

In 2012, speak­ing to The As­so­ci­ated Press, he de­fended his mag­a­zine’s right un­der France’s laws safe­guard­ing the free­dom of ex­pres­sion to print crude, lewd car­i­ca­tures of Is­lam’s founder.

If some peo­ple didn’t like it, Charb said, that was too bad. “Muham­mad isn’t sa­cred to me,” he said. “I don’t blame Mus­lims for not laugh­ing at our draw­ings. I live un­der French law. I don’t live un­der Qu­ranic law.”

At that time, though, the French gov­ern­ment, as well as the White House, openly ques­tioned not the mag­a­zine’s right to print, but its good judg­ment. At least 30 peo­ple had al­ready been killed in vi­o­lent protests over an am­a­teur U.S anti-Is­lam video that por­trayed the re­li­gion’s founder as a fraud, wom­an­izer and child mo­lester.

“Is it per­ti­nent, in­tel­li­gent in this con­text to pour oil on the fire?” French For­eign Min­is­ter Lau­rent Fabius asked then. “The an­swer is no.”

In the wake of Wed­nes­day’s shock­ing blood­bath, such calls for ed­i­to­rial re­straint van­ished. French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande, speak­ing out­side Charlie Hebdo’s of­fice, said the gun­men had tar­geted jour­nal­ists striv­ing to “de­fend their ideas, and to de­fend pre­cisely the free­dom that the (French) Repub­lic pro­tects.”

“We are threat­ened be­cause we are a coun­try of lib­erty,” Hol­lande said, ask­ing for na­tional unity.

Rushdie, who spent years in hid­ing for fear of Is­lamic death squads, said Wed­nes­day the con­flict in the case of Charlie Hebdo was a stark and ir­rec­on­cil­able one be­tween the art of satire as a “force for lib­erty” on the one hand, and “tyranny, dis­hon­esty and stu­pid­ity” on the other.

The above was fea­tured on­line Wed­nes­day by Ya­hoo News fol­low­ing the deadly at­tack on the French satir­i­cal pub­li­ca­tion Charlie Hedbo. The at­tack by the masked gun­men left twelve dead in­clud­ing ten jour­nal­ist and car­toon­ists.

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