Where to draw the line after Charlie Hebdo?

A person reads the latest issue of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015. Picture: Getty

A person reads the latest issue of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015. Picture: Getty

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AS A columnist, I’m in awe of cartoonists. Every week, I try to bend words to my will; I change them, rearrange them, take some out, put them back in again in the effort to make a point, writes Dani Garavelli

Then a cartoonist comes along and says – in a single image – what I failed to say in 20 paragraphs. And not only says it, but says it in such a powerful way it feels like a fist in your gut. Whether it’s Henry Kissinger ­raping the world or the Prophet ­Muhammad weeping over the idiocy of some of his followers, cartoons have an unparalleled capacity to push boundaries, prick pomposity and expose hypocrites. If they offend some people in the process, pas de bol.

When freedom of speech is threatened, it is, so often, cartoonists who hold the line. And those at Charlie Hebdo held it longer than anyone else. In the face of lawsuits and firebombs, they kept on drawing. No wonder their slaughter – an attack not just on individuals, but on all France holds dear – provoked a defiant coming-together on the streets of many European cities.

Yet such solidarity was always going to be fleeting because the freedom they died defending doesn’t lend itself to consensus, but to disagreement. And I’m glad of that. The #JeSuisCharlie tribute was a useful way for helpless onlookers to show empathy. But the unanimity it implied was superficial and bred its own kind of fundamentalism. It fostered knee-jerk responses, such as demands for the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to be published in every newspaper; it encouraged those who had never grappled with the complexities of freedom of speech to make pronouncements about how it should be exercised; and it allowed those whose commitment to the concept had previously been lacking to portray themselves as its staunchest allies.

Days later, the indefensibility of the attack on Charlie Hebdo remains, but almost everything else is shadows and fog. What started out as a single assault on a magazine became a 53-hour reign of terror as the two gunmen and a third from the same cell, chose other targets: a female police officer, a printworks and a shop. The fact the shop, where four more people died, was kosher suggests their aim was not solely to avenge an “insult” to Islam, but to sow division and provoke a confrontation. Hasn’t that been the strategy of al-Qaeda and Islamic State for the past year: to commit ever more heinous acts in an attempt to goad the West into action?

Set against this backdrop, the enormity of the dilemma facing newspapers over the use of Charlie Hebdo cartoons becomes apparent. There will, doubtless, have been a concern for safety. To ask journalists to risk their lives in war zones is one thing, but to take a decision which may place an entire office of workers in danger is quite another. I wonder if those keyboard warriors who branded editors “craven” would be as full of bravado if they faced telling the partner of a dead advertising sales rep how he or she had been sacrificed in defence of a principle.

But fear is not the only possible motivation for opting out. Another might be a desire not to inflame an already combustible situation, or out of concern for the sensibilities of ordinary Muslims who already feel under siege. It is true that every religion should be open to scrutiny, that no-one has the right not to be offended. But by the same token you aren’t obliged to kick people when they’re down or at a time when doing so might harm the community. “The right to publish” is not the same as “it’s right to publish” and the freedom to speak goes hand in hand with the freedom not to.

Then there is the wider political context. The Paris attacks were set against the rise of the far-right across Europe. What if publishing the cartoons legitimised its cause? And what if that’s exactly what the terrorists wanted? Then the newspapers would not be making a stand, but allowing themselves to be used as a weapon in a deadly global game. Berliner ­Zeitung has been lauded because it carried a spread of Charlie Hebdo ­covers, but it did this at a time when tens of thousands had been taking part in marches by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) in Dresden. If I were the editor of a British newspaper, I might have been in favour of publishing. But not Germany, where Pegida has already used the attack to justify its stance on immigration.

The weird thing is that freedom of speech has been in the process of being eroded in Scotland for some time, as the police launch investigations into “offensive” tweets and arrest football fans for singing songs, and there’s been very little backlash. Of course, a terrorist attack does focus the mind. You can only trust that, in future, people rail against those insidious infringements taking place under their noses as well as the more drastic ones in other parts of the globe.

As far as newspapers are concerned, I think the strongest stands against fundamentalism post-Charlie Hebdo have come in an outpouring of new cartoons, many of them contrasting the power of the pencil and the gun. The cartoonists’ job will be more difficult now the narrative is less clear-cut, but no doubt they will rise to the occasion. I hope so, because, for me, the best way to demonstrate solidarity post-Charlie Hebdo is not to rehash work that may run counter to your views, but to go on speaking your truth in your own distinctive voice.

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