By Andrew Ede
Nosotros somos Charlies
This past week has been dominated by events beyond Majorca and Spain, but the attack on Charlie Hebdo has resonated locally not just because of the appalling nature of the terrorism but also because of the assault on the freedom of speech. Media locally has rushed to the cause, pens have been held aloft, declarations have been made. “Je suis Charlie.” “Yo soy Charlie.” “Jo soc Charlie.”
Freedom of speech, an inviolate value of democratic society, is being defended like never before, but at the same time as the defences are being made, attention should be paid to the limits of this freedom even within democratic societies.
Censorship is not unknown but it has typically been censorship that has resulted from war. While we are supposedly engaged in a war on terror, this war has not sparked off, or only in certain specific instances, the need for DA-Notices. And nor should it. The right response to Charlie Hebdo is to reinforce freedom of speech not emasculate it. Of the many who have been quoted or who have been quoted from in the past few days, there was one quote which for me stood out. It was from the cartoonist Steve Bell. “We’ve got to stand up for the right to take the piss out of these monsters, these idiots, these fools, these posturing maniacs who strut around in their black gear as a kind of death cult trying to frighten us all.” Bell was speaking more from the heart than most. Cartoonists were, after all, among those murdered.
Lampooning, satire, written, visual and musical criticism should know few limits. There are some limits, and they are often those of taste; of knowing where to draw a line and of self-regulation.
Otherwise, targets should generally not be off-limits, which include symbols of religion of whatever type. They are targets which, in a sense, we take for granted for their legitimacy, yet for all that lampooning in the West does of course have a history that well pre-dates the institution of true democratic values, in more recent times it has not always been greeted with total approval. “Private Eye”, “That Was The Week That Was” and “Beyond The Fringe”, all of the same period and interchangeable in terms of personnel, raised many a hackle in the early 1960s, but then they were of a tradition littered with the names of Swift, Wilde and Mr. Punch.
For all that we hold this right of freedom of speech so dear, how free are we? Or how free are the media? Each year Reporters Without Borders present a Press Freedom Index. In 2013, the country identified as respecting press freedoms the most was Finland. In 29th position was the United Kingdom, seven places above Spain which, in turn, was one place above France. Above Spain were nations which might seem surprising: Suriname, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, Ghana, Namibia, Jamaica.
In Spain, while the pens have been held aloft, it might be remembered that two cartoonists at the satirical magazine “El Jueves” were fined 3,000 euros each in 2007 for depicting the now king, Felipe, and Letizia in an “explicit sexual posture”. It was disrespectful to the royal family and thus punishable. There are limits in Spain, the royals being one of them. In the UK, the “El Jueves” case was treated with some scorn, but then perhaps in the UK the satirical treatment of its royal family has at times gone beyond the realms of self-regulating taste.
Nevertheless, at the same time as Spanish media, politicians and wider society all demonstrate their support for Charlie Hebdo, how can it be considered acceptable, in the name of freedom of speech, to attack satirically a religion’s prophet and not acceptable to show disrespect to representatives of certain national institutions? In reinforcing the right to freedom of speech, which should be the tribute paid to those who lost their lives in Paris, Spain might wish to reflect on this apparent contradiction.
It might also consider ways in which freedom of speech and of expression are subject to political interference, as with having journalists at the national broadcaster sidelined because they asked awkward questions, or are subject to court action for seemingly petty name-calling. President Bauzá took the union leader Lorenzo Bravo to court for having called him a fascist. The rightful response should have been the Steve Bell defence. Ridicule. It was a stupid insult that demanded a rebuttal of stupidity, not an appearance in front of a judge for honour having allegedly been impugned.
Then there is the wholly and expressly political element directed at society and so not at the media. It has found its own recent expression through the so-called “gagging” law, the measure introduced at the end of last year directed at public protests. It has been variously described as “a kick in the teeth for democracy”, “an attack on the pillars of our democracy”, “a carte blanche for the police”, “an attack on civil liberties”, “a legal aberration”. Strong stuff, and it is considered by some to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Why did the government consider the measure to be necessary? “To guarantee the liberty and security of all of (our) citizens,“ said Mariano Rajoy. The alternative view is as a means of quelling unrest over and protests at a still shaky economic situation and political corruption.
There are other, less overt ways in which this freedom is limited. Business interests, the interests of the “network”, for example. But perhaps these are ones that are inevitable as trade-offs in an open, liberal and capitalist society. They should still be acknowledged, however, albeit they will seem a world away from the horror in Paris.
So, politicians and others in Spain, France and the UK will stoutly defend freedom of speech, will assert that it is fundamental to a democratic society and will honour the dead in Paris. But defending freedom of speech and expression and actually believing in it and enabling it are two different matters.
“Je suis Charlie.” “Nosotros somos Charlies.” Let this be a tribute.