Why we must run the damn cartoons

Michael Petrou on the imperative of publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the prophet Muhammad

A man holds up the front page of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, which shows a caricature of French author Michel Houellebecq. At least 12 have died in a shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices. (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)

A man holds up the front page of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, which shows a caricature of French author Michel Houellebecq.  (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)

Canadian journalists, like our colleagues elsewhere in the West, can be tiresomely self-important. Stick us in front of a microphone at a student journalism conference, and even those among us who write mostly about local theatre or high school sports can be counted on to voice platitudes about defending freedom of the press. Those who report on a bigger stage — covering national politics, for example — can get righteously indignant at tightly managed press conferences with limits on the number of questions reporters can ask. (So don’t attend them; or do, and shout out your questions anyway.)

But little of what we in the West face is genuinely threatening to our freedom of expression—especially when compared with the dangers routinely confronted by journalists in places such as Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Mexico. There, intimidation comes in the form of physical violence. Death threats are sincere. Lest we forget Zahra Kazemi, murdered in Iranian custody. Lest we forget Mohamed Fahmy and his Al Jazeera co-workers, still languishing in an Egyptian jail.

This week our risk exposure changed. Gunmen, apparently Islamists, attacked the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, murdering 12.

The newspaper’s offence was to give offence. It poked fun at everyone: Muslims, Jews, Catholics. Its cartoons could be crude and racist. But it generated the greatest anger from Muslims who objected to perceived mockery of the prophet Muhammad. In 2011, Charlie Hebdo published a “special edition” with Muhammad listed as editor-in-chief (“100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter,” he says on the cover). The paper was fire-bombed. Gunmen this week were heard boasting after their killing spree that they had “avenged the prophet Muhammad.”

The slaughter in Paris has given many journalists in the West a taste of the fear our colleagues elsewhere in the world face much more regularly. Here was a real and credible threat: “Offend us, and you could be next.” We haven’t responded well.

I refer to the decision taken by many major media organizations in Britain and North America — including Maclean’s — not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that most bothered some Muslims. These would be the ones depicting the prophet Muhammad. At least 10 publications in Quebec did publish one or more of the cartoons, as did the Washington Post and the National Post. Some newer online publications such as the Daily Beast also published several of the controversial images.

Some who have not published have had the decency of honesty: they’re afraid. Most have tried to dress up their fear with arguments about not offending readers and viewers.

The cartoons are journalistically relevant. They have provoked anger, and, it would appear, murder. News consumers cannot properly understand what happened this week without seeing the cartoons in question. That purported journalists would claim not offending people trumps this most basic duty to inform is shameful.

So let us instead deal with the real reason: fear. It’s not cowardice. The risks are real. And that — in addition to the inherent news value in the cartoons — is why they should be published.

Solidarity, true solidarity, is more than simply voicing support. It’s sharing risk. And it’s diluting that risk by sharing it among as many people as possible. This is a moment when journalists can and should protect the values we claim to uphold by asserting a willingness to suffer for them. Publish the damn cartoons.

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