Thursday 27 June 2019

Unless you mean what you say, #Je Suis Charlie is another bandwagon to ride on

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny (second right) stands beside Jean-Pierre Thébault (first right) Ambassador of France to Ireland, after signing the book of condolence at the Embassy of France in Dublin for the victims of the shootings at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. PA
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny (second right) stands beside Jean-Pierre Thébault (first right) Ambassador of France to Ireland, after signing the book of condolence at the Embassy of France in Dublin for the victims of the shootings at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. PA
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

It would be nice to think that Sunday's mass rallies across France, and here in Ireland, could change anything. They can't and they won't.

That's a shame, obviously, and there's no doubt that the sight of millions of people standing up to Islamic terror and linking arms in defence of free speech was a welcome and uplifting sight after 72 hours of depressing chaos in France.

The millions who marched were to be congratulated and there's no doubt that it was a welcome reminder of how we tend to do things in the West - no mobs rampaged through Muslim areas in retaliation and no mosques were burned down in front of a baying mob.

So, as an expression of the inherent supremacy of democracy over any other form of Government, it certainly packed a powerful punch. After all, Christian churches were burned and people were killed across the Middle East when Danish newspaper 'Jyllands-Posten' ran those infamous Mohammed cartoons back in September 2005.

I think we can all agree that we would rather live in a culture where the response to an atrocity like the attack on 'Charlie Hebdo' is one of peaceful demonstration, rather than dragging innocent people out of their beds and stringing them up from the nearest lamp post. But as much as these peaceful rallies demonstrate the occasionally humbling decency of most ordinary people, we were also witness to a degree of political hypocrisy which, even by their own low and grubby standards, was quite breathtaking.

As more than 40 world leaders, and Enda Kenny, gathered in Paris to express their belief in free expression, anyone who has a genuine interest in the idea could be forgiven for vomiting at the sheer brass neck of the grandees who assembled.

As 'Reporters Without Borders' (RWB) were quick to point out, some of the world's most repressive regimes were present.

RWB rightly said that they were: "Outraged by the presence of officials from countries that restrict freedom of information", and a quick glance at the guest list explains their ire: Egypt, Russia, Turkey, Gabon, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates and even Saudi Arabia took part - all countries which routinely jail or kill journalists and bloggers who fail to toe the line. Surely there's no need to ponder the absurdity of Saudi Arabia attending a rally in support of free speech, even as they were publicly administering the first 50 of 1,000 lashes to a blogger for the crime of apostasy?

Which is where Kenny comes in.

First out of the claptraps with the usual platitudes and nonsense, Kenny was merely the highest profile Irish politician to hitch a ride on the #Je Suis Charlie bandwagon and the only reason such a sight wasn't even more disappointing is because we have come to expect no better.

How can any politician in a country which has blasphemy on its legal statutes dare to talk about the importance of protecting freedom of expression?

Of course, we specialise in meaningless, self-serving platitudes and weasel words in this country and we don't just have to look at Kenny to see the national disease at work.

Saturday's rally in Dublin was a master class in such double think.

Hosted by the NUJ, we saw a trade union which consistently votes for academic boycotts of Israel posturing in support of freedom of speech, alongside Irish politicians such as Frances Fitzgerald and Joan Burton - who are part of a Government which wants to introduce even more restrictive speech laws in this country.

Here's the thing - any eejit can hold up a sign publicly proclaiming #Je Suis Charlie. But if you're going to walk it, you have to talk it.

Freedom of expression is non-negotiable. It's not some arcane, wishy washy concept, like wishing for an end to world hunger. It's a vital bedrock of democracy and civilisation which deserves more than a bunch of chancers hopping on the #Je Suis Charlie bandwagon, even as they actively campaign against the very principles they now pretend to support.

Too many people, journalists included, seem to look on #Je Suis Charlie as the latest internet fashion frenzy - a combination of #Bring Back Our Girls and the ice bucket challenge.

But this isn't some nebulous fad to be used to show your friends what a great humanitarian you are. It is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

I understand why most newspapers, this one included, decided not to publish the cartoons. I don't agree with that decision, but it's probably prudent and, ultimately, these are matters above the pay grade of individual journalists.

But there is nothing to stop journalists or anyone else with social media accounts from reprinting or re-tweeting the offending cartoons. Some people may not want to, some people may feel it's a hornets' nest that's not worth disturbing and these are legitimate decisions. But anyone who uses the hashtag while refusing to share the pictures is just another tourist in this debate.

That's the trouble with saying you want to protect the rights of others to express themselves - sometimes you have to prove it. This was a chance for people to prove their commitment in real terms and it's depressing how many supposed defenders of free speech failed to take that chance.

It seems a distant memory now, but the first big debate last week was the stupid petition against the Channel 4 sitcom, 'Hungry'. How many of the people who signed that petition, or others like it, were quick to express support and solidarity with 'Charlie Hebdo'? How many Irish people wallowed in that hashtag yet refrained from re-tweeting the cartoons because they were afraid of being prosecuted?

Either you believe in freedom of speech or you don't and if you have ever signed a petition calling for something to be banned, or you support our deranged hate speech laws, then you're off the team. Stop saying you are Charlie.

Because your actions have categorically proven that you're not.

Irish Independent

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