Charlie Hebdo defends freedom of expression with a defiant cover today.
It’s ironic that an extremist attempt to silence a mocking voice has instead turned a struggling publication into a global media phenomenon. Where previous Charlies will have been hidden on the dusty shelves of lone Parisian newsstands, today’s edition will be seen by a vast global audience. So much for trying to kill off free speech with guns!
But given that millions of eyes will be trained on the cover today, I think the cartoonists have missed an opportunity – a chance to acknowledge that this defence of free speech isn’t taking place in a binary context. In the reality of capitalism and geopolitics we’re quite willing to change our black-and-white libertarian dogma into a grey contradiction when it suits us: when those offended happen to be rich and powerful, when selling arms to oppressive regimes seems expedient, or when allowing some pretty dodgy leaders to join our marches seems like just the right thing to do.
Journalists, writers, poets, artists, musicians and cartoonists should be free to mock, criticise and raise hell without fear of persecution by states, terrorists or anyone else. But converting everyone to this principle becomes tricky in a world where no-one really has a moral high ground to preach from. Today’s cover should have reflected this world of ambiguity whilst celebrating free speech and reinforcing the publication’s claim to being even-handed in its satire. My drawing skills aren’t up to scratch, so a description will have to do. It would look something like this:
Four people are gathered around a table in a smoky Pigalle wine bar: Yaweh – sporting a loud Mandela-style shirt in the colours of the Palestinian flag – sits next to Jesus who’s dressed in an orange Guantanamo Bay boiler suit, holding hands with his fiancée Chelsea Manning; and finally there’s Mohammad, dressed in drag and leading the quartet in a toast as they raise glasses of fine Burgundy to “vive la liberté!”