Je Suis Charlie : Journalism and Free Speech

Je Suis Charlie : Journalism and Free Speech


Sony was always going to release The Interview.

The story of a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the film is a bowl of provocations that is full of silliness spiced up with a splash of the satirical.

It watches like the less-hilarious cousin of the cult classic Team America, where Kim Jong Il, Un’s father, turned out to be a creepy slug-like alien dressed in a meat suit. Not seeing the funny side, North Korea responded by calling The Interview a ‘blatant act of terrorism’. This was followed by a series of cyber-attacks on Sony, which revealed important secrets like ‘not everyone loves Angelina Jolie’. Therefore, with increasing concerns about the safety of those involved, they briefly delayed the film’s release.

It could not be better publicity for a film than the potential for not being seen. Not to mention that the subject of the film was the thing trying ban it.

But they were always going to release it. More than the fact that appearing to give in to the threats of violence looked uncannily like a PR stunt, it is the right of James Franco and Seth Rogan to write, direct and make such a film.

The First Amendment protects them: the right to complete Free Speech.

Even when it offends.

It is also the same right that enshrines the rabble-rousing journalism of Charlie Hebdo, as laid down in theDeclarations of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the European Convention of Human Rights. Not quite as liberal as the First Amendment, it still prevents censorship of any written publication. This is why, although the French government may not have always appreciated the cartoons or writings of Charlie Hebdo, they still defended their Voltaire-inspired, Enlightenment right to freedom of expression.

With the murders of two policemen and ten of Charlie Hebdo’s staff, including the political satirist Charbonnier, the threats against writers and their right to create art came into full relief.

Perceived as a deliberate attack on freedom, within hours Salman Rushdie had released an online statement. The world was reminded of the ten years he spent in hiding, and the three translators that were killed, because of a death fatwa placed upon him after The Satanic Verses offended Iranian clergy.

Not long after, Neil Gaiman reposted a defence of free speech even when it’s ‘icky’, recalling how his own comic on based on the biblical Book of Judges nearly sent his publisher to prison, translating the attack in Paris as one aimed at making the world narrower, duller.

It reminded me of The House of Journalists. A debut from Tim Finch, Director of Communications at IPPR, which tells the story of refugee writers finding sanctuary in an increasingly sinister House in the UK whilst the brutal backgrounds of his characters come frighteningly close to those of the Charlie Hebdo offices.

Interestingly, the narrative voice in The House of Journalists is the third person plural – ‘we’.

I’ve written a lot about this ‘we’ that now epitomises today’s socially extended sense of self and culture. I believe this ‘we’ will help Paris, and artists, and all defenders of liberalism and free speech because it is the socially-created, digitally-enabled PR response to these terrible events.

Across the world ‘Je Suis Charlie’ has trended. As hashtags, on signs, in cartoons and in articles: there is the same culture of ‘we’ witnessed when when millions of strangers poured ice water over their heads, or when ‘I Will Ride With You’ was the reaction to the siege in Australia in December.

An expression of collectivity, ‘we’ focalises social solidarity. A single message.

Some will say that social outpourings of this kind are far from useful. Remember when ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ was ridiculed for being little more than public self-aggrandisement? And not everyone liked the Ice Bucket Challenge. However, when the first reaction of artists of all kinds, people of all religions, voices of all opinions, is to create a mantra reminding the world we are in this together, there is only one way to interpret it.

As Orwell supposedly said, ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.’

Whilst the cartoons of Charb, Wolinski and Cabu were undeniably incendiary, they were also the epitome of those human rights that we so often take for granted.

It was journalism.

It was their job, as journalists, to write. Even when each word might contain a tiny revolution, or when printing might upset us as much as it might inspire us.

“Nous sommes tous Charlie.” After all, the world without freedom of speech would be a much duller place, even if it would  be less offensive.


Politically Correct Drawing never published by Charlie Hebdo

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