Hiding Behind Freedom of Speech


The recent killings at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters have reignited the debate of free speech and tolerance. The French weekly is now being portrayed as the epitome of free speech and how violence can never shackle free speech. Going back a little, the weekly has a history of posting satirical cartoons of religious figures. Cartoons of the Prophet are nothing new for this magazine. It frequently published such cartoons which were downright offensive and hurt the sentiments of numerous Muslims. Now that the attack took place, people are terming it as a violation of their freedom of speech and expression.

Is Charlie Hebdo the only victim here? Of course, there is absolutely no justification of the heinous attacks and violence on the weekly. The terrorists may term it as a revenge attack but it brings to light their own cowardice. However, should the weekly not take some responsibility here? Like any other media, Charlie Hebdo had the power of influencing public opinion due to its high visibility but did it exercise any responsibility? What kind of freedom of speech are we promoting that it ends up hurting religious sentiments of not only a few radicals but also that of numerous followers of Islam? Any sane person would be hurt by their cartoons let alone a follower of the religion they are satirizing. The chief editor, Stephane Charbonnier, who publishes under the pen name “Charb”, who passed away in the senseless violence had said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me. I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law.” While this may be true, he must realize that being a journalist, he has a certain power which he cannot abuse.

Just because no one resorted to violence till now doesn’t mean they weren’t offended. People don’t seem to understand how insulting it is when someone who doesn’t have any idea about a religion insults it for the sake of humor. For example, if a Christian denounces Hindu practices, it is bound to hurt sentiments of Hindus as the person who is saying it has no idea of the faith that people have in their religion. How can journalists of such international repute fail to have any empathy in the pursuit of their profession? Granted that your acts may not be acceptable to everyone but if it ends up upsetting millions shouldn’t you back off a little?

A similar study was that of M.F. Hussain painting nude portraits of Hindu deities. Given the history of Hindu-Muslim discord in India, shouldn’t M.F. Hussain realize that it will hurt sentiments of millions of Hindus especially when they see it coming from a Muslim? Yes, there is something called artistic freedom but at what cost? Journalists must realize that given the sensitivity of people towards religion it is not wise to hurt sentiments of others for creating humor. A study in contrast is the movie PK, which hurt sentiments of Hindus. While the movie is undoubtedly produced for commercial success, it is spreading an important message and showing us the reflection of society. Unlike Charlie Hebdo, PK has talked about the truth and you cannot blame the movie for whatever it has depicted albeit for financial gains.

What the world needs is more tolerance towards each other. Violence is not the answer. People or groups who have the power to influence the public must understand that exercising your freedom just for the sake of exercising it is wrong. Making someone laugh by insulting someone else is unethical and immoral. Kids are reprimanded for this in kindergarten itself! Unless you are spreading a message that positively influences the lives of people, offending someone is never justified.


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