Policy Alert: Rising Powers React to Charlie Hebdo Attack
The terrorist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people including the editor and four other cartoonists, generated a public outcry against terrorism and a controversy surrounding freedom of speech in France, Europe, and the world. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil on the terror attack.
Chinese media unanimously cautioned that free speech has limits and suggested that the limit was pushed too far in the case of Charlie Hebdo.
- Xinhua writer Deng Yushan argued, “Although there is no “but” in the articles enshrining the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press in constitutions, there is always one between the lines. Words have consequences, and in a variety of cases what one says cannot be warranted by free speech…Needlessly offensive reportage that only worsens misunderstanding between cultures and exacerbates mistrust between civilizations is in no way conducive to the well-being of mankind, and thus is in all its forms on the wrong side of the baseline.”
- Xiao Chengsen, executive editor of Satire and Humor, China’s only caricature focused newspaper, told the Global Times, “While freedom of expression is something every author chases after, respect for others demands that some rules not be broken. “We… avoid making jokes at the expense of disadvantaged groups. We don’t have very clear rules when it comes to this, but it is a form of self-regulation that authors should follow.”
- Likening the Charlie Hebdo attacks to terrorist activity in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Xinhua editor Shi Xiaomeng called for “countries to not only stand as one, but act as one in countering terrorism.”
- The state-run China Daily wrote, “On the question of religion and culture, the press should promote harmonious communication and amiable dialogue between different religions and cultures, rather than causing problems for the peaceful coexistence between peoples.”
- Hu Xingjian, associate professor of political science and law at China’s Southwest University stated that, “Since laws alone cannot resolve [cultural conflicts among different ethnic and religious groups], every member of society has to determine the extent to which he/she can go in criticizing, satirizing or lampooning a country, a group or an individual.”
The majority of Russian media remained silent on the issue of protecting freedom of speech.
- Russia’s communications watchdog Roskomnadzor issued a formal warning to the country’s media against publishing religious-themed cartoons, saying their publication could be classified as a crime. The agency also said the publication of religion-themed satirical content contradicted “ethical and moral norms formed over a century of cohabitation” between people of different backgrounds and faiths in Russia.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended a 1.5 million-person solidarity march in Paris last Sunday, along with representatives from 83 foreign states, to honor the victims. Critics questioned Lavrov’s presence at the march, complaining that foreign delegates from states with poor human rights and press freedom track records had no place at the event.
- Despite Lavrov’s participation in the march in Paris, “No high-ranking Russian officials have spoken out about the imperative of protecting freedom of expression, a leitmotiv of Western observers’ commentary on the attack,” observed the Moscow Times.
- Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an editorial opining that the peace march was a decorous civil act that underscored the extent to which Europeans value active citizenship, and how much in this regard Russians can learn.
- Izvestia‘s Leonid Shakhov called on journalists to be responsible. The right to ‘draw and say what you think is necessary’ is indisputable,” Shakhov said. “No one says it serves them right. But, face it, any artist or journalist, assuming he’s not a complete idiot, on finding a less than enthusiastic public response to his nonchalant attacks against the cherished ideas and beliefs of others, whoever they may be, must, if not apologize, then at least not exacerbate the ‘sin of provocation’.”
Many Indian newspapers and commentators expressed concerns about anti-Islam voices in France and raised questions about Charlie Hebdo’s ‘right to offend’.
- While condemning the attack, The Hindu warned that “it would be most unfortunate if the attack on Charlie Hebdo were to give rise to a backlash against French Muslims. That would result in precisely what Islamist groups want—an alienated Muslim population that would become a recruiting ground for their violent cause.”
- “In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo episode, it is Islamophobic violence, as much as Islamist terror, that has emerged as the real and looming threat to French security,” the Pioneer argued, noting a number of anti-Muslim incidents that followed the massacre and urging French society to accommodate the country’s Muslim community that “does not quite feel at home” due to inequality and discrimination.
- The Times of India consulting editor Sagarika Ghose questioned the French magazine’s decision to caricature Prophet Mohammed, saying “The killing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists was unacceptable, no one has any right to gun down a critic. Yet beyond the tragic deaths, perhaps it’s best when the cartoon remains a cartoon: a weapon of laughter and thought, not a weapon of war against religious beliefs. After all, a bellyful of laughter always dignifies both the prankster and his target.”
- Indian writer, critic, and literary historian Rakhshanda Jalil expressed a similar view. “As the pressure mounts…to claim ownership of Charlie Hebdo, and by extension, all forms of radical expressions of dissent, freedom of speech and the right to offend, I must say in equally clear terms: ‘I am not Charlie Hebdo and I am not a terrorist.’ I cannot have a choice forced upon me. I cannot be deliberately offensive. And I refuse to revel in puerile ways of ridiculing the [Islam] ‘other.’”
- Commenting on the anti-terrorism march in Paris that involved millions of participants, including many world leaders, the Business Standard welcomed the global solidarity against extremism. “[T]he universal condemnation of murder, even when the murder is that of individuals whom some might have reckoned blasphemers against Islam, shows that things are not all dark. Indeed there is ground for some cautious optimism.”
While condemning the terrorist attack, Japanese newspapers raised concerns about anti-Muslim sentiments in French society.
- The Asahi Shimbun strongly condemned the massacre as “a grave, threatening challenge to freedom of speech, an essential element of the foundation of a democratic society.”
- But it also expressed reservations about the country’s “excessive” reactions, saying that “France should ask itself whether it is making a well-reasoned, advisable response to what happened if its top government officials are whipping up public sentiment against Muslim extremists by using the word “war” and immediately launching a military action overseas.”
- The Japan Times cautioned against “a very real risk of a rise in intolerance and reprisals against Muslim communities,” denouncing extreme rhetoric such as one by Marine Le Pen, head of the ultra-right National Front party, that “the Islamists have declared war against France.”
- The Yomiuri Shimbun also emphasized the limits of free speech. “As crucial as freedom of speech is…the general view in Japan is that if such expression goes against public welfare, it should not be accepted unreservedly. Media organizations must carry articles and other content only after carefully considering their possible social impact. The spirit of respecting the various values held by those on the receiving end of such expressions is itself the foundation of a mature democracy.”
- The Mainichi Shimbun expressed a similar view, arguing that “Freedom of expression should be protected to achieve a society in which diverse values are respected. To that end, it is important for members of society to respect not only their own values but also other people’s values. If expressions that offend and discriminate against others were to be permitted without limits, society could lose diversity and tolerance.”
- The Sankei Shimbun disagreed, insisting that caricatures constitute an important element of freedom of speech in European society, and that self-censorship in such publications equates to a “surrender” to the fear of terrorism and “playing into the terrorists’ hands.”
South Korean officials and media outlets criticized the terrorist attack and expressed support for France’s war on terror.
- Noh Kwang-il, the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, strongly condemned the attack against the French newspaper. “The shock from the Jan. 7 act of terror on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris that has sacrificed the lives of many, including police, is unfathomable.”
- He added that “Our government is of the firm position that terrorism is an anti-society, anti-humanity criminal act that must be eradicated,” and that Seoul “will be active in the global community and United Nations’ efforts to eliminate terrorism.”
- The Korea Herald showed support for French responses to the massacre, arguing that the terrorists “should realize that last week’s attack has united the people to take a stand against acts of terrorism and that people will continue to live their lives undeterred, enjoying the cherished right to freely express themselves.”
- “The freedom of expression does have its limits,” admitted the Dong-A Ilbo, however adding that such freedom should not be undermined by religious holiness. “Modern media is based on the spirit that even Jesus and Mohammed can be lampooned. Forming solidarity with people fighting against those who refuses to accept it is the spirit of ‘Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie)’… The moment we have absolute religious holiness that we are not allowed to criticize, we would fall into the danger of going back to the pre-modern world.”
Reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Brazil were a mix of revulsion at the attacks and a full-throated defense of the virtues of free speech.
- President Dilma Rousseff released a statement following the attacks expressing her sadness and indignation at the “bloody and intolerable terrorist attack” and declared it “an unacceptable attack on one of the fundamental values of democratic societies—freedom of the press.”
- Folha de São Paulo published an editorial defending the magazine and harshly criticizing the Secretary of Justice in São Paulo state, Toledo César for Facebook comments he made regarding his “indignation at the poor use of freedom of expression by the French cartoonists.”
- In the newspaper Estado de São Paulo, prominent columnist José Nêumanne praised the mobilization of Europeans and their leaders in defense of free speech, concluding that “in this crucial moment for the human race, Europe revealed itself to be fully capable of delivering civilization from the risks of barbarianism…”