Attack on Charlie Hebdo and freedom of press and expression

President François Hollande called the attack an act of terrorism. Without too much speculations who did it I think we can call an attack on media also the attack on freedom of speech. So in your opinion, how should media react, should there be some limits for example in depicting the Prophet? Read few comments.


Gilbert Ramsay, Lecturer in International Relations, Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), University of St Andrews

My immediate thought is that this attack would appear to be in line with what I see as an emerging tendency in jihadist attacks in Muslim-minority states towards more focused attacks on specific individuals deemed to be blameworthy for some particular act, as opposed to mass casualty attacks intended to punish states as a whole by killing ordinary citizens. The trend, I think, has been driven by globalisation and to some extent by the influence of Muslims coming from minority populations, particularly in Western countries in the global jihadist movement.

With regard to freedom of speech issues, the only appropriate response at times like this is to say that attempts to use intimidation and murder should not be allowed in any way to shape our collective decisions about what is and isn’t acceptable speech. That said, freedom of speech is never an absolute. There is always and in every society a constant ongoing struggle with regard to what it is and isn’t acceptable to express. For decades now, we have had to get used to the fact that the world is a smaller place, and things that could once have been said among a given group of people without fear of causing offence now need to be considered much more carefully.

Minority groups are always likely to have less access to the softer forms of power that are usually used to thrash out what is and isn’t acceptable speech. To some limited extent, this makes the decision of a tiny minority to ‘defend’ their group’s particular conception of what is and isn’t acceptable speech more comprehensible. But the fact of the matter is that, over the long term at least, minority groups can and do make progress in democracies without recourse to cold-blooded killing. At the time of writing, a major French novelist has published a book about a Muslim-dominated France that some have accused of Islamophobia. I would imagine that the Charlie Hebdo attack will be more likely to play into the hands of that book’s supporters than its detractors.

Edwin BakkerProfessor, Director Centre for Terrorism & Counter Terrorism, Leiden University

Yes, the attack is more than an act of revenge or an attempt to influence public opinion and politicians. It is an attack on the Western way of life, to democracy and the rule of law for which the freedom of speech is extremely important. The attack is, thus, a direct attack on not only this paper, but also French and European society as a whole.

I think if the result of this attack would be that editors should become more hesitant to depict pictures of the prophet, the terrorists have won. What will be the next thing they want to attack to silence any criticism towards Islam. The challenge is to show resilience: keep calm and carry on and to stick to the principles of democracy and the freedom of speech, without reacting in a provocative way and against Islam in general. A lot of people will be angry and might want to show their anger. This might lead to a negative cycle of distrust, hate, and in the end more violence. However, this is also not the time to remain silent. I expect a number of papers to show support for journal and openly speak out against the attack. Some media (blogs) might react by publishing pictures It is a sign of resilience, but possibly not the best way to react.

Adrian GuelkeProfessor, Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict, Queen’s University of Belfast

This is far and away the most serious terrorist attack in a peaceful society in recent years. Some of the other attacks that have been labelled as terrorist have been by disturbed individuals, whereas this attack would seem to be of a different order, though much still needs to be determined about what organisation is behind the attack and whether it forms part of the ongoing campaign over the Danish cartoons of some years back, as seems plausible on the basis of the information already available. The question of how far religious sensibilities should be taken into account is a most difficult area in relation to establishing the boundaries of free speech in any society. But this is something that individual countries are responsible for establishing through their own laws and legal processes, as they are in a host of other areas. There can in any event be no justification for any group taking the law into its own hands on these matters if it is dissatisfied about the lack of limits on what might be considered blasphemous in another society. What the media will and can effectively do will vary from country to country. In the UK, at the time of the initial controversy over the cartoons, newspapers here were free to reproduce the Danish cartoons if they so wished but none chose to do so, while providing descriptions of the cartoons so that their readers understood what the controversy was about.

Andrew Silke, Head of Criminology/Director Terrorism Studies, University of East London

I think one issue is that terrorism aims to influence and dictate how society works. It does this through the use and threat of violence. In relation to the Paris attack, one of the aims of the assault is to deter the press from publishing things the terrorists do not like. In short, terrorist-sponsored censorship. Should the press go along? Probably not. The press have to make constant judgements about the stories they publish, and security threats can be a factor but should not be the decisive or major factor.

Of course, there are other aims to every terrorist attack, for example, one is usually to attract as much media attention as possible – the oxygen of publicity – which is essential for successful terrorist campaigns. By attacking a high-profile media target here, the terrorists have ensured that they will get just such massive international coverage. Any attack in Paris which killed 12 people would get huge attention, but arguably, this will get even more than normal.

The harsh reality is that the media will nearly always be a factor in terrorist conflicts, both in terms of how they cover the conflict but also as potential targets.

Aaron MannesResearcher at Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, University of Maryland

The freedom of expression is essential to a modern humane society. While one can sympathize with Muslim anger at negative depictions of Muhammad, there is no justification for violence. Most people have objects and individuals that they venerate, but part of being a member of an open society is accepting that what one holds dear and sacred may be an object of humor or scorn to others. Free societies offer innumerable legitimate means of protest. Perhaps the most significant means of protest is to simply ignore what give offense.

Journalists and the media should stand firm and not bow before intimidation, although one can sympathize that they are worried about their safety. The story should be reported soberly and without hyperbole. These monsters were willing to kill people over some pictures in a magazine. This is a trivial reason – an excuse – for murder. That simple fact above all else should be highlighted and emphasized.

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