Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Charlie Hebdo Assassinations

France is in mourning. The violent events of last week have been as shocking for France, which has scarcely experienced terrorism, as the attack on the twin towers was for the USA.  In fact someone said as much to me earlier today as around 200 people from the village assembled outside the Mairie for a brief expression of solidarity with the families of the bereaved, and with each other.  Adding to the sense of loss is that some of those killed were loved as public personalities as a result of their broadcasts on radio and television.  In Paris somewhere between one and two million people, many carrying “Je Suis Charlie” banners, paraded on the wide boulevards, behind world leaders from over forty countries.

I am profoundly sorry for the deaths and injuries caused by Jihadists in Paris and extend my sympathy to the families and friends of the victims.

The London bombings
So why do I find myself emotionally detached from such a very sincere expression of emotion and outrage by the vast majority?  It’s not because I’m in sympathy with Jihadism, quite the contrary!  I deplore all violent acts, but especially those with religious or racial motivations, and I condemn unreservedly anyone who kills in the name of religion.  

Perhaps as a British citizen, who lived in London during the IRA terrorism of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, I’ve become blasé about such events and their associated risks. In the mid-seventies, in Blackheath, I heard the shots when an army officer was killed in the next street. In the nineties, when the IRA bombed Canary Wharf, the detonation and the sound of falling glass were clearly audible from Islington where I lived.  During this period we all became very familiar with the horrific results of Catholic-Protestant religious intolerance but after a while you accept terrorism as a fact of life and carry on.

The right to be offensive
There are, however, other aspects to the Charlie Hebdo assassinations and the subsequent reaction.  

A French Socialist politician said, on the television news today, that freedom of speech includes the right to be offensive.  Charlie Hebdo was certainly very offensive!  I was highly offended when I saw some of their cartoons representing Muhammad and I’m not going to reproduce them here!  To me they aren’t even funny, but then I don’t understand French humour!  Our neighbours say that (unlike the UK tabloid press) Charlie Hebdo never attacked anyone’s private life but everything else, without political bias, was considered a legitimate target for ridicule, scorn or being downright offensive! 

Limits to freedom of expression
There are various laws in France which restrict the freedom of expression. 

There is a law concerning the defamation of the character of an individual, defamation as defined in article 29 of the law of 29 juillet 1881 concerning the Freedom of the Press.

Law No.72-546 of the 1st July 1972 modified the law on the Freedom of the Press. You cannot deny the holocaust, or provoke racial or religious hatred.  Crucially, provocation in French law means inciting people to commit violent acts, which represents a step further than the superficially similar UK law (see below).

Another law protects public officials. You can’t insult a public official in the course of their duties verbally or in writing.  When Rachida Dati made an embarrassing verbal slip in 2010, and a misguided individual teased her about it repeatedly by email, he was arrested, his flat searched and his computer impounded.  You can read more about this here. Rachida Dati’s verbal slip

You are also forbidden by law to publish details of the private lives of French public figures.

In the UK, as well as similar laws concerning libel and slander, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, passed in 2006, forbids publishing material with the intention of inciting racial or religious hatred.  A 2012 Scottish Act forbids offensive behaviour at football matches including inciting racial or religious hatred.

So freedom of speech is not an absolute right, it is regulated by law and if you transgress the law you have to accept the consequences.

With freedom comes responsibility.
And now a week later I've had further thoughts about the whole episode.

To equate freedom of expression with an absolute right to be highly offensive seems to me to be misguided.  To offend people just because the law doesn’t forbid it, and to sell newspapers by doing so, does not seem to me to be responsible behaviour.  Very few people would go up to someone in the street and be deliberately offensive.  If they did, as the Pope has said, they would probably expect a violent reaction: as an atheist since my mid-teens I am surprised to find myself agreeing with the Pope on this matter. So if you’re a cartoonist or journalist why do it?

In my view, if you make your living by deliberately seeking to be offensive to everyone including a substantial religious minority in your own country, the same thing applies. Of course the consequences should not include being killed by Jihadists, but the Charlie Hebdo staff had been threatened, they knew the risks and carried on in the name of freedom of expression. Some of the staff had already been under police protection yet they continued to publish similar material. Was this responsible behaviour?

In fact Charlie Hebdo is proud of being irresponsible. The issue published a week after the assassinations carries a banner saying “journal irresponsable” on the front page above yet another cartoon of Muhammad, this one less offensive than others.

An irresponsible newspaper
In the event, the staff of Charlie Hebdo were not the only victims of the assassins and it is both tragic and ironic that one of the dead police officers charged with protecting them was a Muslim. 
As a result of their proud irresponsibility, and the violent Jihadists reaction to it, seven citizens and police officials have died, not including the Charlie Hebdo employees.

Martyrs to what cause?
Today France and the western media consider that the assassinated Charlie Hebdo staff are martyrs to the cause of Freedom of Expression.  Wouldn’t it be more accurate for them to be remembered as martyrs to the “Right to be Offensive” to all, including religious minorities?

Political Opportunism
There have been several stages in the evolution of opinion since the assassinations of Wednesday; from initial shock and grief; to the need to express solidarity behind the cause of Freedom of Expression in France; broadening the latter to include other French/European values and freedoms; and finally to the more international and political business of resisting attacks on Western values from Jihadists and Islamic State.  Why else did Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas both attend the Paris march on Sunday? 

We have now been told by David Cameron that yet more powers are required by the State to monitor ALL of our private communications, including emails, and social media. I expect some other countries will follow his opportunistic lead. 

So the deaths of journalists and cartoonists, supposedly standing for Freedom of Expression, are now being used as a reason for the need to take away fundamental liberties.

Suis-Je Charlie?
No “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” if that means using the freedom of the press irresponsibly and, like a middle aged Muslim lady on a news bulletin on Sunday, I don’t unconditionally support the right to give offence to religious minorities.

Resist  Jihadism
But when it means standing together to resist jihadist terrorism, "Je Suis Charlie"

During November 2014 research commissioned by the BBC and undertaken by Kings College, London, found that over 5,000 people were victims of jihadist attacks around the world.  The majority were in Middle Eastern and African countries and are therefore easily ignored by Western media.

I give my wholehearted support to resisting Jihadism in every legal and responsible way wherever it appears!