Gagging in the wake of Charlie Hebdo

'Tonight I can write the saddest lines,' goes the opening of the Pablo Neruda poem. But I have to admit, it’s very tough to type these words now. 

As a journalist, I’m struggling to put the proverbial pen to paper in an attempt to string some thoughts together, to sculpt order out of apparent chaos and distil some meaning from yesterday’s events.

All the more reason to do so.

Everyone I know was shocked by the horrific murders of 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

Many creative people – journalists, satirists, cartoonists and the like – are shaken to their core by a combination of anger, grief and fear.

Yet today they are defiant, jumping right back into the fray. They continue to write, to lampoon, to draw.

As cartoonist Dave Brown very poignantly did in the UK’s The Independent, they will collectively flip the bird to all those who seek to silence the press and curtail freedom of expression.

Thursday's Independent front page: #tomorrowspaperstoday #bbcpapers #CharlieHebdo pic.twitter.com/2CyAmYj84D

— Nick Sutton (@suttonnick) January 7, 2015

In their own various ways they will continue seeking to create something new and meaningful; to impart fresh knowledge or inspiration to others; to shine a light on even the darkest corners of human existence and probe our innermost questions and emotions. And so they should.

The freedom to express one’s unique personal beliefs, opinions and worldview is among the most wonderful things about being human.

Denying people this right – through whatever means – is always a crushing, stultifying, dehumanizing act.

Not everyone will share the same opinions all of the time – but no exchange of ideas should end in a bloodbath. The right to freedom of expression is an essential linchpin for the realization and exercise of all human rights. 

Granted, it is not an absolute right – there are certain, very limited, circumstances where free speech can be restricted, for example, 'hate speech' or incitement to discrimination.

But international human rights law does not permit any restrictions of freedom of expression simply on the grounds that others find it offensive or that the authorities say it poses a risk to public order.

In the immediate aftermath of such a dreadful attack, there is a risk that authorities rush in new anti-terrorism measures or impose restrictions which impact on the right to freedom of expression and other rights.

And there is often a risk that, for fear or other reasons, some will lash out, exacerbating discrimination and prejudice and dividing societies along lines of religion or ethnicity.

Sadly, we have already seen some of this in isolated incidents of attacks on mosques. This must not be allowed to escalate.

As the UN High Commissioner underlined yesterday after the killings, 'the rule of law must unite us in standing firm against such terrorist acts. The rule of law also requires that we seek to arrest and punish those directly responsible for carrying out, planning or acting as accomplices to specific crimes and do not attach blame to any wider group.'

It is encouraging to see the unity that people have shown in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, as people in France and around the world have refused to let themselves be cowed into silence.

People of all walks of life and, notably, all creeds, condemned the killings and stood up for freedom of expression. Journalists and the public at large resisted the potential urge to self-censor and gag any further criticism or debate related to the attack.

Instead, people took to the streets in their thousands, expressing solidarity and giving a fresh lease of life to all those journalists, satirists and cartoonists who will not be gagged by fear and will continue to work in the wake of this attack.

I, for one, hope they continue to do so – our collective freedom depends on it. #JeSuisCharlie.

Conor Fortune is the News Writer at Amnesty International's research HQ.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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