Editorial: On Charlie Hebdo: Government Suppression and Media Hypocrisy

  • Graphic Jennifer Aedy

In the wake of the attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, people around the globe have taken to the streets in a show of support for both the victims and for free speech itself.

It’s important to remember, however, that governments that repress the media are the greatest threat posed to free speech and uncensored expression. During the last two years alone, 177 journalists around the world have been imprisoned, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The United States’ internal investigation of torture revealed that the CIA purposefully misled members of the press by “leaking” false information, while the Canadian government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has made it impossible for environmental scientists working for the government to publish or disseminate their work. This has effectively created a wall of public relations between information and the public.

In late 2011, two Swedish journalists interviewing people in the conflict-prone Ogaden region in Ethiopia were sentenced to 11 years in prison for “rendering support to terrorism.”

While the attacks on Charlie Hebdo have raised support for free speech, the popular narrative has leaned more towards nationalism, demagoguery, and populist rhetoric.

The public, European and North American alike, must be wary of governmental tendency to use tragedy to further a xenophobic agenda.

This was evident in Stephen Harper’s speech following the shooting on Parliament Hill. It was evident in the hastily legislated laws issued in the wake of the Sydney café attack in Australia. And now it’s happening in France.

Calling to “libérer la parole” or liberate speech, reactionary extremists of the French far-right party Le Front National, such as Marine Le Pen, have jumped at the opportunity to legitimate an Islamophobic discourse.

Instrumentalizing the attack, Le Pen has also announced her wish to reopen the debate on the death penalty in France. Careful in her choice of words, she points at the dangers of “Islamic fundamentalism,” leaving her rhetoric open to interpretation.

With such a broad statement and total lack of nuance, her words heighten feelings of xenophobia and resentment. It fuels a dialogue which pins the blame for France’s security issues on immigration, a large part of which is from traditionally Muslim countries in North Africa.

We have already seen this in the United States. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, American media struggled to piece together the tragedy. Because little else was confirmed at the time, they focused on the identities of the hijackers, emphasizing their radical religious beliefs and Middle Eastern backgrounds.

It is reasonable that media outlets consistently referred to the 9/11 hijackers as terrorists. Today, however, Western media has adopted a troubling habit of only applying the label “terrorist” in situations where the perpetrator is Muslim.

Case in point: in 2011, right-wing extremist Anders Breivik of Norway bombed government buildings in Oslo and slaughtered 69 people in a mass shooting, killing 77 in total. Breivik, who committed his crimes in the name of Christianity and specifically targeted Norway’s Labour Party, was a terrorist by definition, but nearly all media coverage of his massacre referred to him as “deranged,” “a lunatic,” or “a mass killer.”

All of these characterizations may be valid, but the ugly truth is that in our media coverage today Muslim criminals are categorized as terrorists and non-Muslim criminals are simply “crazy.”

While mass media outlets do a disappointing job of guiding the discourse in times of unthinkable tragedy, we must reiterate the pivotal role played by writers, illustrators, reporters, editors and anyone who makes a living re-examining the politics and social concerns of the cultural milieu in any democratic country.

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