Mark Cantrell, Author

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COMMENT: Charlie Hebdo Lives

Posted by Mark Cantrell on January 9, 2015 at 6:25 PM

The forces of silence must not prevail

The men with guns can't take away our press freedoms, only harden our resolve, but if we're not careful they might distract our attention away from the real culprits threatening freedom of speech, writes Mark Cantrell


WEDNESDAY'S attack on the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is a chilling illustration of the murderous extremes some are prepared to take in their efforts to silence a free press, but in the long run it's not the men with guns who threaten our freedom of speech.


We'll need to remember that, or wake up to it, as things settle down and something akin to normality returns. For now the emotions remain raw, as we come to terms with the shocking incident, and the equally terrible aftermath.


The attack has only hardened resolve. Protests in solidarity with the victims and the principles of freedom of speech have continued, expressing the sentiment – 'we are all Charlie now'.


But there's an ugly side too, with fears expressed of a backlash against Muslim communities in France and elsewhere. It's worth noting that one of the first victims was a Muslim police officer, Ahmed Merabet. Meanwhile, far right politicians have – inevitably – sought to exploit the atrocity. There are appeals for calm and mutual understanding, a call for unity between Muslim and non-Muslim, secular and religious alike, against anybody seeking to stir the noxious stew of hatred.


Easier said than done, no doubt, but for now the more humane voices of unity and solidarity appear to hold the high ground, condemning the atrocity but refusing to lay down collective blame. And long may that continue, but it would be foolish not to acknowledge the tensions the atrocity has created, and that the risk of a backlash remains very real – something the gunmen may well have intended (as this commentator has pointed out HERE).


Nonetheless, whatever the wider aims of the terrorists, as the Guardian said in its leader yesterday those "guns were trained on free speech". It was the free press that found itself in the immediate firing line, to tragic effect.


"The assassination of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, cynically targeted on press day to maximise casualties, is an attempt to assassinate the free press. Our hearts go out to the families of the journalists and police officers killed in this despicable raid," said Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).


"The newspaper had already been the subject of attacks by people who want to suppress democracy and freedom of speech. These journalists have now paid with their lives; the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice. Supporters of free speech and civil liberties must stand together with governments to condemn this act and defend the right of all journalists to do their job without fear of threats, intimidation and brutal murder."


There's something about bully boys in balaclavas letting rip with machine guns to shut people up that tends to have a galvanising effect, as those protests taking place around the world have demonstrated. Sure, they silenced editor Stéphane Charbonnier and stilled the pens of cartoonists Jean Cabut, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac, but they don't have enough bullets to shut the mouths of all those now speaking out against them and their murderous credo.


Charlie Hebdo might appear to be an unlikely champion of a free press, then again it might be the perfect candidate, if only because its work inevitably provokes mixed feelings.


The magazine revels in the notoriety its satire generates; it fiercely proclaims the rights of free speech, and doesn't pull its punches. Its subjects have been many; including the Pope and General Pinochet, but it has also courted controversy for its work poking satire at Islam. Regardless, the magazine has cared little for the offence its satire generated.


There's something not quite respectable about it, you might say; a certain disregard for the comfort zone of polite society that leaves the feathers somewhat ruffled. The Left might permit themselves a wry smile at depictions of a dictator like Pinochet; Islam is a rather more complicated matter.


Satire is a dangerous form; the Left and the Right might laugh at the self-same piece – or find offence in it – for entirely different and distinct reasons. Such can be discomfiting. Simplicity, a neat mix of black and white, tends to be so much easier on the soul.


Inevitably, then, some people thought the magazine went way over the line; it has also been accused of stoking Islamaphobia. There are genuine debates to be had about the nature and impact of Charlie Hebdo's work – satire more generally too – but this isn’t the place or the time. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the material it published, no matter the discussion over how far is too far, the victims didn't deserve summary execution by a set of self-serving and self-proclaimed judges, juries and Kalashnikov-wielding executioners.


Wednesday's attack killed 12 people – including eight journalists and two police officers – in a chillingly well-executed commando-style raid. It is blood curdling to think of the terror the magazine's staff must have experienced as these gunmen stormed into their office and began their targeted killing. Equally, it is impossible to imagine the pain and anguish of their families and friends who have lost their loved ones.


“We weep for the victims of [this] horrific attack on Charlie Hebdo," said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders. "Our thoughts are with these colleagues and friends, who have been taken from us by hatred. There can be no worse attack on media freedom, and all other freedoms, than to storm into a media outlet and shoot on sight. We will continue our fight for freedom and tolerance in the face of this barbarity. We will do it for them and for all those who have fallen in defence of such fundamental values as freedom of information.”


The atrocity in Paris isn't the only instance where journalists have been singled out for their work. Last year, 66 journalists were killed around the world, according to the organisation, which campaigns for press freedom. Meanwhile, according to its index, some 177 journalists are currently imprisoned around the world because of their professional activities. The organisation now has a start for its tally for 2015; sadly, the staff of Charlie Hebdo are unlikely to be the last.


Dead men tell no tales, nor can they answer back; therefore the living must speak up on their behalf, in the defence of all our liberties, and we must urgently remind ourselves that the threat to press freedom does not come only – even mainly – from the men with guns.


The biggest danger to press freedoms comes from our own indifference, as politicians and proprietors, corporations and commercial interests, 'securicrats' and more combine to whittle away at the mechanisms and channels of our freedom to speak out and criticise power and authority.


Take a few quickfire examples off the top of the head: there's Vladimir Putin and Pussy Riot; there's the shenanigans of the United States government to suppress the activities of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden; there's Turkey's President Erdogan and his recent efforts to 'discipline' the country's journalists. All told, they represent a disturbing trend to try and curtail the ideals of a free press and civil liberties.


Fortunately, they have met with resistance, but governments and corporations can afford to play a long game – death by a thousand cuts, as it were.


On Wednesday, the men with guns targeted Charlie Hebdo for silence; they failed. Tomorrow, elsewhere, the men armed with draconian laws, security forces and the power of wealth may target others; they are better placed to secure greater if not yet outright success.


Tomorrow, those speaking up for the rights of LGBT people, or women, for trade union rights, for the vote, for investigating and uncovering dodgy corporate dealings, or campaigning against some other injustice may themselves targeted for silence. A free press can be a pain in the arse for all the wrong reasons – it can also kick arse for the best of reasons.


None can curtail the power of a free press better than the concentration and consolidation of media into an oligopoly of corporate ownership, however. Throw in self-serving governments (even democratic ones) and the machinations of the security apparatus, and you have a nexus that leaves the idealistic expression of journalistic freedom intact, but its implementation a hollow shell.


Here in the UK, media ownership is heavily concentrated in the hands of a few corporate giants, each enthusiastically pursuing 'modernisation' efforts that bolster the bottom line at the expense of journalistic principle and practice.


Regional and local papers are being shutdown entirely, or 'consolidated' into hubs based far from the towns they may purport to represent.


Low wages abound, as employers exploit the idealism of hard-pressed staff. Editorial teams shrink – without a shot ever being fired, only journalists – and national newspapers are now pretty much exclusively London-based and metropolitan-focused.


Meanwhile, with the huge cost of living in London, and unpaid internships having become the norm, a career in journalism is beocming an option viable only for those higher up the socio-economic ranks. Media diversity shrivels, the raucous plurality of the press hums ever-more monotone, as sections of society find themselves silenced by indifference, but on paper at least freedom of the press appears intact.


There are many groups in the UK whose voice goes unheard in the British media, whether as working journalists or as people given a voice and a presence to speak and present their stories in the national discourse. Where are their press freedoms? They have few, if any. And not a gunman in sight.


The treatment of the poor – working or not – is a case in point. In the current political climate, what with welfare reform and the growing wealth inequalities, those in poverty are too often vilified in the media, demonised or presented as pathetic victims of their own inadequacy. They are certainly not given space to speak out and take part in the national conversation. They have no rights to speech; they no longer have civil liberties in any meaningful sense.


The power of a free press resides in a diverse media, a plurality of voices, a rowdy cacophony of reportage, comment, sober analysis, and – yes – outrageous satire. But it also needs a public committed to the principles, and prepared to show the same fire as was provoked by the attack on Charlie Hebdo.


Yes, press freedom is under siege, and with it so many of the wider freedoms we take for granted, but in the long run it's not armed men in balaclavas that threaten the survival of our liberties.


The men with guns can kill us – but they can't silence us. The politicians and the proprietors, on the other hand, the corporate executive, securicrats and legislators, they can shut us up – and call it press freedom.


Don't let the murders at Charlie Hebdo blind us to that.


Mark Cantrell,


9 January 2015

Copyright © January 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Photo Credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc/ Wikimedia Commons – cc-by-sa-3.0


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