JE SUIS CHARLIE

LO­CAL SUPPORT South Africans, some of them from France, gath­ered at Zoo Lake in Jo­han­nes­burg yes­ter­day to stand in sol­i­dar­ity with the vic­tims of the Charlie Hebdo ter­ror­ist at­tack

CityPress - - Front Page - CHAR­LOTTE BAUER news@city­press.co.za

Fe­rial Haf­fa­jee on tread­ing the fine line of tol­er­ance Ter­ror sus­pects killed in a hail of bul­lets

I n the crazy hours after the at­tack on the Paris of­fice of the satir­i­cal weekly, in which 12 peo­ple were ex­e­cuted with an icy ef­fi­ciency that has shaken France to its core, mes­sages from my French friends started to land in my in­box.

They were re­mark­ably sim­i­lar in their raw feel­ings: dis­be­lief, sor­row, anx­i­ety.

“I put a can­dle in my win­dow,” wrote Christophe. “I feel like cry­ing.”

“I don’t know what to say, ex­cept that we are all ap­palled and… SAD,” wrote Mar­tine.

“We are so anx­ious for the fu­ture of the world,” wrote Nathalie.

Marie was dou­bly dev­as­tated. She knew one of the vic­tims: economist Bernard Maris.

The world as my friends knew it had just tilted on its axis, yet it was too soon for anger.

In­stead, as I read one email after another, this is what I heard: the peo­ple of this noisy, ar­gu­men­ta­tive na­tion I some­times call home had put down their pol­i­tics to com­fort one another as cit­i­zens, as hu­mans, in cri­sis.

They told me about their plans for the week­end: to join com­mu­ni­ties across France, gath­ered to mourn the dead. Vig­ils would be held at the top of an­cient stone towns, can­dles would be lit at peace mon­u­ments and vil­lage may­ors would dis­trib­ute “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) badges, the slo­gan that has come to stand for sol­i­dar­ity and common feel­ing with the ter­ror vic­tims.

As France’s far-right Na­tional Front leader Marine Le Pen seized the chaotic mo­ment to make xeno­pho­bic hay, blam­ing im­mi­grants (read Mus­lims) for France’s prob­lems, my friends had al­ready an­tic­i­pated this type of blow­back.

Bernard wrote: “What has hap­pened is ter­ri­ble for those com­mit­ted peo­ple and ter­ri­ble for free­dom of ex­pres­sion. I am also con­cerned ha­tred may rise against a pop­u­la­tion that can­not avoid be­ing con­fused with the guilty ex­trem­ists.”

Marie wrote: “I just hope that after Jan­uary 7 we will not be­come like the United States after Septem­ber 11 and start to jus­tify sell­ing arms and us­ing tor­ture against oth­ers in the name of ‘pa­tri­o­tism’.”

Since Wed­nes­day’s at­tack, count­less com­men­ta­tors have pit­ted the im­age of the ex­e­cu­tion­ers’ guns against the pen­cils of the Charlie Hebdo car­toon­ists. The in­fer­ence is clear: guns are dan­ger­ous; words and images are not.

Noth­ing, ab­so­lutely noth­ing, can jus­tify Wed­nes­day’s cold-blooded mur­ders. Yet to say words and images don’t have the power to hurt is not true. It is why we have defama­tion laws, why hate crimes in­clude hate speech. In France, it is a crime to deny the Holo­caust hap­pened.

My friend Christophe, a Charlie Hebdo fan from youth be­cause of its “provoca­tive teenage spirit”, sent me a se­lec­tion of some of his favourite cov­ers. They in­cluded ad­vice on how to lose 30kg be­fore a beach hol­i­day: get Ebola; a Catholic priest pat­ting a small boy on his lap and say­ing: “If you’re nice to me, I’ll take you to the anti-pae­dophile demo”; and a fresh turd on a French flag with the words “Le Pen: the can­di­date who looks like you”.

Funny? That’s a mat­ter of taste and per­spec­tive. Of­fen­sive? Of course! De­vout Catholics will surely be up­set by the im­pli­ca­tion that the priest who leads the Sun­day ser­mon may sex­u­ally molest their son when ev­ery­one’s eyes are closed in prayer. Why wouldn’t a Na­tional Front sup­porter take um­brage at be­ing com­pared to a lump of shit? How must the Ebola diet sound to the ears of a Liberian right now?

But of­fence comes with the ter­ri­tory in com­edy – and con­cepts like “re­spect for oth­ers” and “sen­si­tiv­ity” are not part of the suc­cess­ful co­me­dian’s job de­scrip­tion.

Ask France’s bad-boy stand-up co­me­dian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. A self-de­scribed “anti-Zion­ist”, he has of­ten been con­victed and fined for mak­ing provoca­tive jokes.

Charlie Hebdo it­self has been ac­cused of giv­ing Mus­lims a harder time than any­one else – when jokes aimed at other tar­gets have not had such up­roar­i­ous con­se­quences.

But in 2009, a Charlie Hebdo car­toon­ist was fired for mak­ing a – fairly opaque – joke about Ni­co­las Sarkozy’s son, who was ru­moured to be con­vert­ing to Ju­daism to marry a Jewish heiress. “He’ll go a long way in life, this lit­tle lad!” Mau­rice Sinet wrote. When asked by his ed­i­tor to apol­o­gise, Sinet said: “I’d rather cut off my balls.” He later faced for­mal charges of slan­der for anti-Semitism.

We all say we be­lieve in hu­man rights, when mostly we mean our own. We all think we’ve got a sense of hu­mour, un­til some­one doesn’t get our joke – then we ac­cuse them of sense of hu­mour fail­ure.

As Dieudonné and Sinet found out, one man’s punch line is another man’s poi­son. Fairly or un­fairly, Dieudonné con­tin­ues to be hauled be­fore the courts. Rightly or wrongly, Sinet got the bul­let from his boss. Still, no­body died. Guns and words both have neg­a­tive pow­ers. But only words have pos­i­tive pow­ers. Words can soothe and heal. Words can make us love and laugh.

Am I Charlie Hebdo? Per­haps not, if it means stand­ing up for a mag­a­zine of small cir­cu­la­tion and ques­tion­able taste. But if it means stand­ing with my fine French friends in their quest to bal­ance free­dom with em­pa­thy and tol­er­ance with teas­ing hu­mour, then, yes ... Je suis Charlie.

News­room con­fer­ences are the heart­beat of a me­dia op­er­a­tion. It’s here where you set the tone; de­ter­mine the leads; de­cide on your col­lec­tive opin­ion; and of­ten dis­agree.

It is an open space, but also a sa­cred one, where a team of in­di­vid­u­als come to­gether to cre­ate a way of un­der­stand­ing your world or re­veal­ing its course, or telling you things pow­er­ful peo­ple would rather you did not know.

It was sim­ply hor­ri­fy­ing to imag­ine crazed men en­ter­ing this space and spray­ing mur­der­ous bul­lets across a news con­fer­ence room – prov­ing the gun might­ier than the pen. What hap­pened to satir­i­cal weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris this week would not hap­pen here.

The corol­lary is that a Charlie Hebdo would not be pub­lished in South Africa. As a jour­nal­ist, this is not an easy truth to hold; but as a South African, one must con­cede its wis­dom. I for­get some­times where we come from: a his­tory of white Christian na­tion­al­ist chau­vin­ism over­laid by deep racial op­pres­sion.

When free­dom came, peace had to be con­structed along­side it, or we might have ended up as the two Su­dans, the Cen­tral African Repub­lic or the closed so­ci­ety of a post-com­mu­nist Rus­sia.

Our mir­a­cle nar­ra­tive can fray at the edges, but along with (rel­a­tive) racial har­mony, South Africa’s demo­cratic found­ing fa­thers be­queathed us some­thing equally valu­able: in­terreli­gious har­mony.

Else­where, re­li­gious strife rips apart the world as be­liev­ers turn their gods to war. Not here. At ev­ery oc­ca­sion of state (and most ma­jor po­lit­i­cal party gath­er­ings, too), there is a mar­vel­lous pa­rade of prayer as var­i­ous Christian lead­ers, a Jewish rabbi, a Mus­lim imam, a Hindi pan­dit and a praise singer bless the gath­er­ing.

This is rapidly be­com­ing an un­usual legacy of re­li­gious tol­er­ance in our frac­tured world. In­ter­mar­riage has en­hanced re­li­gious di­ver­sity, and many peo­ple live across faiths.

Athe­ism and ag­nos­ti­cism are mi­nor­ity belief sys­tems, and draw­ings made by car­toon­ists like those who died so vi­ciously in Paris are not common cur­rency here.

When Zapiro sharp­ened his pen­cil to join the in­cen­di­ary cam­paign called Draw Muham­mad Day – a Western car­toon­ing cam­paign in de­fi­ance of the pre­cept that the Prophet must not be de­picted – the Mail & Guardian apol­o­gised after a wail of protest.

I did too, at the same ti­tle, when we pub­lished one of the cartoons made by the Dan­ish pa­per Jyl­lands-Posten. I chose it to il­lus­trate a story of how protests were spread­ing from Den­mark across Europe and into the rest of the world.

Damna­tion fell across me, filled my in­box, and I felt the weight of heavy and wide dis­ap­proval. It didn’t just come from Mus­lims. The pres­sure was po­lit­i­cal, from other re­li­gious lead­ers, and from peo­ple I ad­mire and love.

There were threats, and deeply dis­taste­ful anger and ac­tion di­rected at me, but the far greater pres­sure was so­ci­etal.

In think­ing through that aw­ful time, I re­alised I had crossed a new South African line. My rad­i­cal free ex­pres­sion found it­self at odds with so­cial mores. Some­where be­tween 1994 and 2010, when the in­ci­dent oc­curred, this had been es­tab­lished.

We do not of­fend each other on re­li­gious grounds. South Africa has de­cided, in weight­ing its rights, that re­li­gious rights trump the right to free ex­pres­sion. Un­like the French, many South Africans are deeply re­li­gious – prayer and wor­ship are the most common prac­tices across class and race.

Two years later, another piece of satir­i­cal art landed City Press and I in hot wa­ter.

A draw­ing called The Spear by Brett Mur­ray was pub­lished as part of an art re­view. It fea­tured a par­tially naked Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma in a Leni­nesque pose. The artist’s imag­i­na­tion was clear: our pres­i­dent is our naked em­peror. Never has an art re­view gone as vi­ral as The Spear did. Damna­tion rained upon us as a po­lit­i­cal boy­cott was called and copies of City Press were burnt in a Dur­ban march led by one of our First Ladies. By 2012, Twit­ter was in full tweet, and the cam­paign against us turned vi­ral and vi­cious.

That was painful, but not un­bear­able. What pushed my hand on that delete but­ton as we brought down the dig­i­tal im­age was some­thing much deeper. Our so­ci­ety spoke to us in pained col­umn inches and emo­tional talk shows as the in­dig­ni­ties of be­ing black were ripped open again by the piece of art. Art is pow­er­ful that way.

It turned out that 20 years of free­dom is a dot in time. It turned out that we are not healed. It turned out that our peers and el­ders thought we had crossed a line by pub­lish­ing it.

Again, I learnt painfully that South Africa has, by and large, weighted the right to dig­nity (even of the pow­er­ful) more highly than it has free ex­pres­sion.

When the writer Eric Miyeni called me a black snake who de­served a neck­lace for our ex­posés of then ANC Youth League pres­i­dent Julius Malema’s ten­der ways, he was also called to or­der by a swathe of so­ci­ety. He was then fired.

Although it never went to court, this in­stance and other de­ci­sions have shown that the courts and reg­u­la­tors have set the bar con­ser­va­tively on what qual­i­fies as hate speech.

With our past, South Africa has es­tab­lished an almost zero-tol­er­ance ap­proach to of­fence and provo­ca­tion.

The Paris shoot­ings were numb­ing, but it was not long be­fore Charlie Hebdo’s provoca­tive style was held up to the tough­est South African scru­tiny in col­umns and on so­cial me­dia this week. It’s how we roll.

Our so­ci­ety would not coun­te­nance a Charlie Hebdo here – if there was one, it would not sur­vive com­mer­cially, and would be sub­ject to court and other civic ac­tion.

But in our other na­tional spirit, that of de­bate, I must ask: have we over­cor­rected for our past and do we risk sac­ri­fic­ing free ex­pres­sion? Is it a good or a bad thing to ac­knowl­edge that our me­dia and so­cial land­scape would not find space for a Charlie Hebdo in spite of a Con­sti­tu­tion that enshrines free ex­pres­sion?

Tol­er­ant and open so­ci­eties must al­low for of­fence and provo­ca­tion, but set lim­its for when this tilts into hate speech – that limit must be set by the courts. Too of­ten th­ese days, it is be­ing set by politi­cians, or the sim­ply in­tol­er­ant.

And the line is be­ing drawn tightly and harshly, not loosely or pro­gres­sively, as I would ar­gue our Con­sti­tu­tion imag­ined.

The Spear un­leashed un­healed an­guish for sure. But the cam­paign against it also served to bol­ster a flac­cid po­lit­i­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion that needed an en­emy be­cause it works best when cast in a vic­tim mode.

Last year, the ANC’s cadres marched against a de­pic­tion of ANC vot­ers as clowns.

And, while our re­li­gious free­doms and har­mony are valu­able common goods, there is a vein of deep in­tol­er­ance and a threat­en­ing spirit in sec­tions of the ANC that surely de­serve in­tro­spec­tion by its lead­ers.

At the end of last year, in the mid­dle of the sea­son of good­will, Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s praise singer sin­gled out Zapiro, me, City Press and Julius Malema as en­e­mies of the state.

Malema is a po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent, not an en­emy; City Press is a me­dia ti­tle; and Zapiro and I are jour­nal­ists, not en­e­mies. We should be nei­ther vil­i­fied nor val­orised if we are to en­joy our African free­dom.

This week’s at­tacks on Charlie Hebdo and the slay­ing of col­leagues there have pushed me fur­ther away from our na­tional con­sen­sus and the ways we have cho­sen to limit free ex­pres­sion.

I un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate that con­sen­sus, but I no longer support it. Too of­ten in South Africa, when we speak about free speech, we talk about its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and its lim­its – it is even the lan­guage of most writ­ers, jour­nal­ists and ed­i­tors if you lis­ten care­fully.

But now I want to talk about the right to free speech and how to ex­pand it, not limit it, and how to bur­nish it and keep it bright.

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