In 2012, Stéphane Charbonnier told an interviewer that “I would rather die standing than live on my knees.” Known as “Charb,” the editor of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo died standing on January 7th. Islamist terrorists gunned him down in the Paris office of the magazine, along with nine other journalists and two French policemen. For years the staff of Charlie Hebdo had lived under death threats for insisting on their right to free speech, which in their case included ridiculing religion (along with just about everything else, from right-wing politicians to French society in general). They published irreverent, provocative cartoons of Muhammad, the Pope, Jewish prophets, Jesus and others.
Immediately, media outlets around the world proclaimed that the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on freedom of speech. So it was. Unfortunately, only a few of the large, mainstream media corporations manifested the least bit of backbone necessary to fight back. On the same day that the Guardian decried the “attack on free speech,” it refused to publish any of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
The Telegraph and the New York Daily News altered photos of people holding copies of Charlie Hebdo to blur out the cover page cartoon. According to Politico, “CNN sent an email to staff on Wednesday afternoon noting that the network will not be showing images of the cartoons and advising staff to avoid close-up shots of demonstrators holding up copies of the magazine that make the cartoons clearly legible.” NBC, MSNBC, and The New York Times put in place similar policies. Likewise the Associated Press, which stated that it was their longstanding policy not to publish “deliberately provocative images.”
The reaction of these media outlets is cowardly, unprofessional and harmful to free speech. The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are an integral part of the news story of January 7th, essential for readers and viewers to understand the context of what occurred. Media outlets who wished to show a bit more respect towards one of the world’s major religions could have limited themselves to publishing one of the last cartoons Charlie Hebdo put out on its cover, which simply shows a man in a turban (supposedly the Prophet Muhammad) covering his face in exasperation. The title is “Muhammad Sick and Tired of Islamist Fundamentalists,” and the Prophet is saying “It’s not easy being loved by idiots.”
At this point, some alert readers of this column may exclaim “But wait! Islam forbids any depiction of the Prophet Mohammed! So even that drawing, which does not otherwise ridicule the Prophet, would be ‘deliberately provocative’!”
Depictions of the Prophet are only forbidden in some interpretations of Islam, however. Especially in central Asia and elsewhere outside the Mashreq (eastern Arab world), centuries of reverent art work, created by Muslims, depict the prophet. More importantly, Western states have not enacted Sharia’ law last time I checked. This is why Charb, the murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo, in 2011 insisted on his right to publish such drawings: "Muhammad isn't sacred to me. I don't blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don't live under Koranic law."
By cowardly practicing self-censorship, the major media outlets invite more attacks like this one. There are many things that some people, depending on their interpretation of their religion, may find blasphemous or “deliberately provocative.” Perhaps in the future atheists in the West could be attacked for claiming God does not exist, or polytheists in the East for claiming that gods exist. Whomever made the movie “Oh God” several years ago, starring George Burns as God, could need a bodyguard for depicting an image of God. In orthodox Judaism it is forbidden to even write the word “God.” But why stop there? Don’t like a certain network’s coverage of your favorite issue? Bomb them or shoot them! They are mostly all cowards anyhow and then the others will shape up!
If the media outlets in the West truly value freedom of expression, they will therefore all run Charlie Hebdo pictures as they cover this story. This will show the terrorists that they cannot impose their medieval mores on the world by force. It will infuriate them and show them that their violence only brought more offense to their delicate religious sensibilities, much more than if they had just ignored Charlie Hebdo’s slights. Peaceful devout Muslims who are offended by such a campaign should forgive the distastefulness of the images, for surely the murder of civilian journalists is much more offensive onto God than any two dimensional caricature ever could be.
I doubt this will happen on a wide scale, unfortunately. Of the major English language news sites I searched through, only Bloomberg, Fox News and the Huffington Post honored the news, the principles of freedom of expression and the murdered satirists by showing photos of their work. Several major non-English outlets in countries where it is legal to publish such things (generally the non-Muslim countries) did likewise, such as Le Parisien, Ha’Aretz, and Berlingske.
The rest of the media should be ashamed of themselves for remaining on their knees.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press) and co-editor (with Mehmet Gurses) of Conflict, Democratization and the Kurds in the Middle East (2014, Palgrave Macmillan).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.