Seekers of the truth have always been the target for bigots, zealots of all brands, flag-waving jingoists…from the moment when men and women began to organize themselves into tribal, social or national entities. Prophets of the world’s leading religions and countless spiritual guides have long preached love rather than violence as a solution to the unending list of human conflicts—and many have fallen victim to the violence against which they sermonized. They have also frequently fallen into the crassest of contradictions: condoning wars which they say are in the name of God or who knows what other supposed superior being or society.
For its part, journalism—written accounts, editorials, cartoons, photo-journalism, radio-journalism, TV. Internet, facebook, twitter—the vast and ever changing attempts to transmit or analyze information about the world we live in—has always been an occupation exercised with a high degree of risk. Long before what we know today as the “science” of communication, storytellers, jugglers, and a myriad of other entertainer-informers adapted what they said and how they said it in accordance to their audiences. Censorship or its more subtle cousin, self-censorship, have both accompanied the struggle for freedom of expression—a struggle that is far from over.
The recent tragic attack in Paris, France, that took the lives of four Charlie Hebde cartoonists, and a handful of others in subsequent actions and police repression, including the alleged attackers, brings to light not only the discussion on freedom of expression but the shadowy ever-present tooth-for-tooth struggle that has been pulling the world apart in the wake of the end of the “Cold War.” It is impossible to discuss freedom of expression in a void: if governments or insurgent elements of whatever orientation attempt to suppress an opinion it is in the context of the social and political implications of the opinions expressed.
The 17 journalists killed in Syria last year and the more than 100 media workers assassinated or disappeared in Mexico since 2000—to mention the situation in but two countries—illustrates the continued risk undergone by those who seek to inform. A close analysis also indicates that the causes for the attacks against freedom of expression obey diverse interests, not just the protagonists of the present “war” against Islamic extremists. However, freedom of expression is clearly targeted with particular vehemence during periods of war (a calamity more common than peace in recent history) or when power is in the hands of dictatorial or authoritarian cliques.
The assassination of a reporter, photographer or other person involved in collecting and distributing information is obviously a brutal and criminal act which merits the swift and precise action of judicial authority. It must be remembered, however, that more subtle or “civilized” ways of suppressing or distorting information exist in “democratic” or “open” societies. French based cartoonist Robert Crumb has lamented the fact that journalists in countries such as the United States have been replaced by “public relations people. That’s what they have over in America now. Two-hundred and fifty thousand people in public relations. And a dwindling number of actual reporters and journalists.”
In cases of war the mass media in a country almost universally back the war effort, often at the expense of objectivity. Perhaps the most notorious example: most mass news media in the U.S. championed the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in mass destruction and death but by no means ended the spiral of violence. The press supported the attack for diverse reasons perhaps, fear, pressure from government propaganda, the notion that violence in response to violence (the attack against the Twin Towers) could bring about peace and justice. History is a clear witness to the futility of the formula that revenge can put an end to human conflicts.
True. Something similar could be said about wars in practically any country in the world, the wars of the former Soviet Union against separatist movements, the war that resulted in the wake of the invasion of the Malvinas islands by the Argentine dictatorship, the unending wars between Israel and Palestine…the list is long.
In the case of the killings in Paris, people understandably took to the streets to vent their shock, grievance, pain, shock, despair and repulsion for the brutal attack against the cartoonists; and perhaps in exasperation for the unending spiral of violence in the “war against terrorism.” Perfectly understandable. Yet this was but another act in a revenge minded world which includes not only suicide attacks by extremists but also assassinations via invasions, cloak-and-dagger activities and bombings by drones. While the extremist attacks against civilians are repulsive to the sense of decency, it is also true that an enormous number of civilians have died in the attempts to deal with extremism: according to Rory Fanning, “In These Times” Jan. 13, 2015, and more than 174,000 civilians were victimized from 2001 to last year in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Charlie Hebdo cartoonists not only made fun of Mohamed; their policy was (and is) to vent their humorous darts at any figure in public life without constraint. However, they certainly realized that their drawings could bring about a possible violent response. The same happens among children or any group of individuals, although usually to a much lesser degree: an insult or picking on certain individuals may be taken stoically but at one point or another an aggressive response is almost inevitable. Aggression breeds aggression, violence breeds violence. The spiral is only ended when one of the parts involved is forced to surrender, or if third parties are able to bring about a reconciliation. The winner in power struggles re-writes history and his version is repeated consciously or unconsciously by the media. The winner consolidates his power and imposes his will on society, until his rule is in turn questioned…
The shouts for unity and even “war” against extremists echoed by certain politicians in the wake of the massive demonstrations condemning the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, are comprehensible; murder in a dreadful crime; as is the violent suppression of views; future historians will no doubt describe it as yet another phase of the present revenge-begets-revenge war model.
The defense of “Western” values has a strong emotional appeal to Europeans and Northamericans and strikes a strong chord but the existence of those values is due to a sordid history: the colonial powers of the West practiced slavery, and appropriated and pumped Third World natural resources into the industrial revolution, giving rise to the capitalism. Europe was also the battle ground for two of the world’s bloodiest wars. Subsequently, during the “Cold War,” the West championed human rights—now a key element in any democratic government—yet using the theory of the “least of two evils” undercover support was also given for coups and grave abuses committed by hard-fisted regimes deemed “friends” in the bi-polar struggle for power.
Using civilians as targets is repulsive to Western and universal values, censorship violates the principles of democracy, doing so with violence and resorting to assassination is even more repulsive but such acts are likely to continue or even intensify as long as the notion of revenge and wars to end wars continues or until there is a clear conclusion to the conflict. Hopefully the solution to censorship, violence and war can be found in an increased consciousness of the real significance of democracy.