A need, perhaps, for considerable restraint and dignity

It was horrendous. The attack against French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo that has left many dead, in France and elsewhere. The killing of innocent schoolchildren in Peshawar was barbaric and the world was yet to come to terms with that episode when the chilling attack took place in the heart of Paris, in the heart of the free world. 

If the bloody massacre in Peshawar was randomly executed out, the one in France’s capital was methodically carried out. The two heavily armed men apparently called out the names of the journalists to make sure they were the ones they wanted before shooting them. 

Millions walked through the streets of Paris a few days after the incident, in a show of unity against the attack. It was not just freedom of expression that had been violated; it was an attempt to instill fear, to destroy the human spirit. Despite the courageous show of strength, and Charlie Hebdo coming up with a special ‘survivors’ issue’ that flew off the shelves and sold millions of copies, journalism may never be the same again, at least for a long while. 

Indeed, as a statement issued by WAN-IFRA says, “It is not just an attack against the press, but also an attack on the fabric of our society and the values for which we all stand. This should be a wake up call for all of us to counter the rising climate of hatred that threatens to fracture our understanding of democracy.” It must be noted, however, that the incident was not the first on Charlie Hebdo. In 2011, an arson attack had destroyed the publication’s then headquarters, also in Paris. Threats notwithstanding, editors of the magazine have remained defiant in continuing its critical satirical line.

In some ways, the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris and that which played out in Tiruchendur in Tamil Nadu a week later have similar echoes – it is freedom of expression that’s facing the guillotine. Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, the author of Madhorubhagan, after receiving threats and under duress, decided to issue a statement offering an “unconditional” apology for having hurt the sentiments of a certain section of people and withdrawing all his books, asking publishers not to sell copies anymore. The writer in him was dead, he said. 

Murugan’s book, incidentally, was published in 2010 and all was quiet then. Resentment against written material has surfaced in the past, too. For example, Ulysses (by James Joyce) was declared by government officials in the UK in the 1920s to be “unreadable, unquotable and unreviewable”, according to The Economist. Thanks mainly to the final chapter in the book which none other than D.H. Lawrence felt was “the dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written”. Copies of the book were burnt on both sides of the Atlantic. Now, of course, Ulysses is considered one of the best of modernist fiction of the 20th Century.

When I was a student of Journalism more than two decades ago, one of the lecturers encapsulated good writing by these words: simplicity, clarity, brevity and dignity. My lecturer’s words found echo in what Pope Francis said a few days ago while on his way from Sri Lanka to the Philippines. He said there were limits to freedom of expression and that following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris “one cannot make fun of faith”. He added that freedom of speech was a fundamental human right but “every religion has its dignity”, and “man had slapped nature in the face”. 

It’s the discretion we use – to write, to publish. For example, Sky News took an editorial decision not to feature the cover of the ‘survivors’ Charlie Hebdo issue. So did the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, Sun, Mirror, ITN and Press Gazette. However, the Guardian (online only), Times, Financial Times, the Independent and BBC decided otherwise. Websites Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Yahoo News published the Charlie Hebdo front page. 

Has Charlie Hebdo been crossing limits over the years? The question can be debated and there will be no clear-cut answer. But what appears clearer at the end of the day is that journalists will have to exercise restraint and bring some amount of dignity to their work, else they will have to be prepared to fight their own battles. Even as other battles are played out in the public space.


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