WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — The assault on freedom of expression resonated throughout the world following the terror attack that left 12 people dead at the Paris offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Though the attack sparked a massive uprising of support from millions across the globe, many are left wondering if media outlets will in fact tone down their use of satire or opinion in fear of similar attacks.
Said and Cherif Kouachi, who officials say were connected to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, gunned down staffers last week after the magazine published several cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.
The massacre was part of a long list of terrorists attacking journalists over the past year. In Syria, American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were beheaded on video at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria after being held captive for a couple of years. And just in December, Sony initially canceled the satirical movie “The Interview” after U.S. officials said that North Korea hacked the entertainment company.
The Paris terror attacks were seen as an assault on the West’s freedom of expression, with jihadists trying to singlehandedly censor the media. Many American networks and newspapers refused to show Muhammad cartoons following the attacks, while European media aired and reprinted the cartoons.
Rodney Benson, associate professor of media studies and sociology at New York University, told CBSDC that European media outlets will not censor themselves while American media will act more restrained.
“I don’t see much evidence of increased self-censorship or less freedom of expression in France, Germany, or elsewhere in western Europe as a result of this attack. In fact, exactly the opposite,” Benson said. “Charlie Hebdo’s version of provocative freedom of expression is now going to have a bigger megaphone than ever.
“The press that is more restrained, ironically given our First Amendment, is in the U.S. The Associated Press, The New York Times, the major TV networks have made it clear they are not going to show the images of Muhammad. It’s a replay of the last Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2006, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed satirical Muhammad cartoons, which were reprinted in several newspapers across Europe, but not in the United States.”
The publications of the cartoons led to international protests and even death threats against staffers.
Benson believes that now we’re seeing a greater caution among American media.
“In these particular incidents, however, where the issue for freedom of expression concerns the representation and respect for religious symbols, there has been somewhat greater caution on the part of the U.S. mainstream press,” he said.
The issue doesn’t just center around freedom of expression, continued Benson, but also on society’s relationship to religion.
“In the United States, there is a certain respect accorded to religious ideas – even from those who do not share those beliefs – that is largely absent in secular western Europe. What’s interesting also is that there are laws in France, and in much of Europe, against Holocaust denial and speech that incites hatred against groups based on their ethnicity, sex, and even religion,” he told CBSDC. “So Europe has formal restrictions that the U.S. doesn’t have, but in practice, the discourse – at least about Islam – seems to be actually more wide-ranging and even incendiary than it is in the U.S.
“At a moment like this, it’s difficult to have a discussion about the responsible limits of free expression, but effectively Europe has already acknowledged that there should be some limits, so that shouldn’t be forgotten. Charlie Hebdo was all about pushing those limits, but not everyone in France agreed with their approach.”
In an op-ed piece for Al Jazeera America, Arthur Goldhammer wrote that those who praised the cartoonists who were killed would have previously called the Muhammad cartoons obscene and tasteless.
“The whole point of Charlie’s satire was to be tasteless and obscene, to respect no proprieties, to make its point by being untameable and incorrigible and therefore unpublishable anywhere else. The speech it exemplified was not free to express itself anywhere but in its pages. Its spirit was insurrectionist and anti-idealist, and its creators would be dumbfounded to find themselves memorialized as exemplars of a freedom that they always insisted was perpetually in danger and in need of a defense that only offensiveness could provide,” Goldhammer wrote. “To transform the shock of Charlie’s obscenities into veneration of its martyrdom is to turn the magazine into the kind of icon against which its irrepressible iconoclasm was directed.”
Goldhammer concluded: “In mourning the tragedy, let us not forget that Charlie Hebdo was shocking, obscene and offensive because the world is – as today’s shocking obscene and offensive tragedy makes clear.”
Satirist John Ficarra, the editor-in-chief of Mad Magazine, had trepidation appearing on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” when asked to provide commentary about the attack. Ficarra explained he hesitated over potential ramifications from terrorists.
“When ‘Sunday Morning’ approached me about doing this commentary, I paused. My first consideration — did I have something interesting to add to the discussion? You can be the judge of that. But I also paused because in this unsettling new world I couldn’t know the ramifications of my decision,” Ficarra said. “By the simple act of appearing on camera, denouncing the terrorists and defending the rights of cartoonists and satirists, would I be drawing a target on my back and the backs of my colleagues? Unfortunately, these days those are not unfounded fears and the very fact I had these fears score one for the terrorists. On the other hand, come Monday morning my staff and I will be back at work on the next issue of Mad. What? Us worry?”
Despite the attack, Charlie Hebdo pressed on. The satirical magazine is publishing 3 million copies a week after the attack with the cover depicting Prophet Muhammad crying and holding a sign reading, “Je Suis Charlie.” The magazine typically printed 60,000 copies a week for previous issues.
Still, some American media outlets refused to show the cover, perhaps none bigger than CNN, where officials said Tuesday that “it is our policy not to show potentially offensive images of the prophet.”