The Charlie Hebdo Challenge

Wednesday, June 17, 2015
Cartoon by Jean Jullien
By Paul Knox
After the January massacre in Paris, Canadian news media were forced to decide whether to republish the French weekly’s controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad—and an unusually bitter debate broke out.
When two self-described Islamic militants attacked the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and shot to death 12 people, including eight staff members, outrage exploded worldwide. Many of those who found Charlie’s satire puerile, and its cartoons of religious figures such as Muhammad distasteful, nevertheless defended its right to publish them. In Paris and elsewhere, millions demonstrated to protest the killers’ savage attack on freedom of expression, one of the worst in modern times. Opposing murder is a no-brainer, but deciding how to cover an event such as the Charlie massacre is not. In its aftermath, an unusual spectacle unfolded in Canada: reporters and editors arguing in public, at times even denouncing one another, about what was appropriate. The fierce debates exposed major differences of opinion about news media’s responsibilities in covering a tragedy with religious overtones. But the episode also revealed the strength of respect in Canada for freedom of expression as a bedrock democratic principle. Some news organizations published provocative Charlie Hebdo cartoons as part of their coverage. Some decided not to. All were free to act as they wished. None faced sanctions from governments, courts or tribunals. That’s as it should be, in CJFE’s view, since journalists following their professional instincts may disagree about how to cover a story. “That’s really a decision that each person has to make on their own,” Tom Henheffer, CJFE’s executive director, told Global News following the attack. But Henheffer added: “What we cannot do is allow events like this to censor ourselves. That is exactly what these guys [the Paris killers] want to happen.” And indeed, self-censorship became a central issue as Canadian reporters and editors wrestled with the story. They differed on two questions. One was professional: Could readers or viewers really understand what motivated the attackers without seeing a sample of Charlie Hebdo cartoons mocking Islam and its prophet? The other question was moral: Could anyone claim to support Charlie without republishing, at the very least, the cover of its first post-massacre issue? That cover depicted a frowning white-robed Muhammad, shedding a tear and holding a placard that read “Je suis Charlie.” Above the Prophet were the words “Tout est pardonné” (“All is forgiven”). The widest journalistic fault lines were linguistic, notably within the CBC. David Studer, director of journalistic standards and practices for the national public broadcaster’s English network, argued in a memo to staff: “We wouldn’t have published these images before today—not out of fear, but out of respect for the sensibilities of the mass of Muslim believers. Why would the actions of a gang of violent thugs force us to change that position?” By contrast, viewers of French-language news programs were shown Charlie cartoons. “We will allow them to be broadcast,” Michel Cormier, director-general of news for Radio-Canada, wrote in his own staff memo, “but not over and over—only when people are discussing them or explaining why they are controversial.” The goal of the policy was to keep the public informed, not to show solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, Cormier added. In the privately owned Quebec media—most of which also ran Charlie cartoons—many argued that a strong show of solidarity was exactly what was needed. As Denise Bombardier wrote in Le Journal de Québec and Le Journal de Montréal, the affair exposed “profound cultural and historical differences between multicultural English Canada and Quebec, where secularism will serve from now on as a mark of identity.” Among English-language dailies, only the National Post republished Charlie’s images. In a Post column, Jen Gerson argued that to fail to republish the French weekly’s post-massacre cover was to dishonour its staffers’ sacrifice. Their killers sought to silence others, Gerson wrote. “And when Canadian news outlets avoid running the cartoons, the effort succeeds.” Not so, said The Globe and Mail. In an editorial, the paper explained that it was honouring Charlie Hebdo and its freedom to publish by itself freely deciding not to republish any of the Charlie cartoons. The editorial called critics of that position “crass and pompous.” Other English-language news media made similar arguments or cited a desire not to offend Muslims, many of whom believe depictions of Muhammad are blasphemous. That left unsatisfied readers and viewers to check out the Internet, where Charlie’s cartoons were widely available. Some prominent writers disagreed publicly with the stand taken by their employers. “The Charlie Hebdo cover is self-evidently news,” wrote Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno. “But we’re afraid to show it.” Nothing can erase the horror of the carnage in Paris. But there were a few encouraging signs for Canadians who welcome the tolerance and diversity of opinion that freedom of expression promotes. While the National Post published Charlie cartoons, other Postmedia papers didn’t. That’s a change from the era when the chain, then known as CanWest and controlled by the Asper family, required its members to run identical editorials and disciplined staffers who objected—practices strongly criticized at the time by CJFE. What of Canadians beyond journalism? In a nationwide Angus Reid poll commissioned by the National Post, 70 per cent of respondents said Charlie Hebdo had the right to publish its cartoons, but only 56 per cent supported republication by Canadian news outlets. Divisions among Canadian journalists may therefore mirror those of a society in which basic questions about identity and difference remain unresolved.
Paul Knox (@paulgknox) teaches journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. He was a reporter, an editor and a foreign correspondent at The Globe and Mail, and he served for six years on CJFE’s Board of Directors. This piece was originally published in CJFE’s 2014-15 Review of Free Expression in Canada.

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