Wednesday 20 February 2019

Let's repeal our blasphemy law if we really want to honour 'Charlie'

Charlie Hebdo supporters have been showing their solidarity with ‘I am Charlie’ signs
Charlie Hebdo supporters have been showing their solidarity with ‘I am Charlie’ signs
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

There was much worthy talk about freedom of speech in newspapers yesterday, after the murderous attack on French satirical magazine 'Charlie Hebdo' by jihadists, but conspicuous by their absence were any reproductions of the cartoons for which 12 people died.

No newspaper in this country, or in the UK, dared to publish the supposedly blasphemous cartoons, depicting the Prophet Mohammed, which zealots used as pretext to slaughter 10 journalists and two policemen.

In contrast, 'Charlie Hebdo' published many cartoons, even after its offices were fire-bombed and extremists issued death threats against its staff. It viciously lampooned other religions and refused to mete out preferential treatment to Muslims because of intimidation from a minority of fanatics.

Some of its cartoons pushed the boundaries of taste and were unquestionably crude and offensive, like those that depicted Mohammed naked. Others relied less on shock value and did what political cartoons do best, providing a scathing commentary on current affairs that immediately capture the imagination in a way that 800-word columns cannot.

Like the cartoon in which Mohammed is pictured with his head in his hands and the caption, "it's hard to be loved by idiots".

Regrettably, readers unfamiliar with the magazine will have seen none of its cartoons yesterday - meaning a core element of the story, the purported reason for the massacre, was omitted from the coverage.

The reluctance to print the cartoons felt to many like a kind of betrayal, a feeling that the terrorists had won. Not only had they gunned down the 'Charlie Hebdo' staff, they had succeeded in muzzling them in death - the work for which they gave their lives deemed too controversial to reprint.

This kind of self-censorship by the press after such a horrific attack on fellow journalists, working in a major European capital, is deeply troubling but not surprising.

When religious lunatics are prepared to kill and maim for the crime of drawing a picture, then editors have to think deeply about their responsibility to staff before publishing material that could endanger their lives.

This is particularly true for those media organisations that have foreign offices in the Middle East, where staff are especially vulnerable to attack.

Some editors, speaking about the dilemma, said they didn't want their newspaper to be the only one to publish the cartoons, thereby making their offices a target.

However, if every newspaper, all over Europe, agreed to publish the cartoons en masse, as a tribute to the murdered journalists, then the risk would be diluted and it would show the extremists that their aggression would be met with defiance.

Unfortunately, in this country, the decision to publish the cartoons is even more complex. Not only do media organisations have homicidal maniacs to worry about, we also have a medieval defamation law that includes blasphemy as an offence.

A member of the Islamic Cultural Centre, Dr Ali Selim, commenting on the 'Charlie Hebdo' attack, has specifically said he would seek legal advice if any newspaper in Ireland published the cartoons.

This is not a hollow threat, but one that media organisations have to take seriously. The publisher of this newspaper, INM, was previously dragged through the courts in 1999 after a man claimed a cartoon published by the 'Sunday Independent' was blasphemous. INM ultimately won that case, because the Supreme Court found blasphemy could not be judicially defined,

In 2009 Fianna Fail justice minister, Dermot Ahern, enacted legislation which clearly sets out the offence of blasphemy, along with a €25,000 fine. Securing a prosecution would be difficult, because it has to be shown a media outlet intended to cause religious outrage, but the existence of the offence has a chilling effect on media.

If we really want to honour the slain journalists of 'Charlie Hebdo', then we need to repeal this antiquated law and stop perpetuating the nonsense that an all-powerful deity would be offended by a cartoon.

Irish Independent

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