Could the Charlie Hebdo attack cause a rise in media self-censorship?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Could the Charlie Hebdo attack cause a rise in media self-censorship?

Editorial cartoonists are used to their work triggering a backlash from those they lampoon, whether it’s angry letters to the editor, demands they be fired and threats of cancelled advertising.

But the deadly attack by alleged Islamic extremists on Charlie Hebdo, the Paris-based satirical magazine, has shocked Canadian cartoonists and advocates for journalistic freedom.

They fear it may induce a chill of self-censorship, if not by the acid-penned artists themselves then perhaps from the publications they work for, out of concern that some cartoon might trigger bullets instead of angry words.

“I certainly hope there won’t be a chill on any form of free expression but it’s hard to imagine how there couldn’t be,” Tom Henheffer, executive-director for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, told Yahoo Canada News.

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Three masked men carrying assault rifles burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday and unleashed a fusillade of gunfire. Twelve people died, including four of its cartoonists and two police officers. Many others were wounded. There were late reports police had identified the suspects and made three arrests.

Henheffer said the attack represents a disturbing escalation in the targeting of journalists. An increasing number of reporters have been killed in conflict zones, often deliberately targeted, and the Islamic State has publicly beheaded western journalists.

"You don’t expect that to happen when you’re working in Paris or Toronto or New York or a place we consider safe," said Henheffer.

Satirical cartoonists have been singled out by Islamic fundamentalists before. Staff at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were hit with an edict of death for insulting the Prophet Mohammed after the paper depicted him in a series of 2005 cartoons. Many devout Muslims consider showing images of Mohammed to be blasphemous.

The cartoonist who drew them, Kurt Westergaard, was attacked with an ax in his home in 2010 by Mohamed Geele, a Somali citizen suspected of having ties to that country’s Islamist Al-Shebab. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In 2011, Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed after republishing the 12 Danish cartoons.

Famed Montreal Gazette cartoonist Terry Mosher (aka Aislin) said a chilling effect and second-guessing may be inevitable after the Charlie Hebdo attack. But he expects most cartoonists to fight back with their pens, as many did in reaction to threats against Westergaard and his colleagues in 2005.

“Any cartoonist with a bit of gumption has had attention from these various groups,” said Mosher. “I’m not going to say it’s water off our backs, and you do sort of think about it a bit. But it’s not going to stop us doing what we do.”

Gazette plans no increase in security

Mosher said the Gazette has told employees there would be no increase in security staff at the paper but cautioned them to be alert.

Mosher knew one of the cartoonists killed in Wednesday’s attack, Stephane Charbonnier (known as Charb), who was also the magazine’s editor-in-chief.

“If there’s anything positive to come out of this, there should be discussions about the importance of satire in a free society and how you can’t give up on that,” he said.

Editorial and satirical cartoonists can say things news reporters and even columnists can’t, Henheffer said. For instance, the Conservative government might be successful in stonewalling journalists, he said.

“But you know who always seems to hold them to account is Brian Gable at the Globe and Theo Moudakis at the Toronto Star,” Henheffer. “Those guys are pretty on point and they can be pretty biting.”

For many, cartoons may deliver a momentary chuckle, but they’re important symbols of free speech, he said.

“When it comes to free expression there’s always kind of an outside pressure pushing the fringes closer to the middle,” said Henheffer.

"If you don’t put a line in the ground and defend things at the edge when there is that question, should it be published, should it not be published, if you aren’t defending those things, then things get pushed closer to the middle and the battle is harder the next day.”

Censorship comes from publications

Cartoonists are less likely to censor themselves than find themselves censored by nervous publications, said Mosher.

Editors are the biggest threat to political cartoonists, said Vancouver cartoonist Dan Murphy. He had his animated spoof of a Northern Gateway pipeline feel-good TV ad pulled from the Vancouver Province websiteostensibly over copyright concerns.

If potentially provocative anti-Islamist cartoons are pulled while those supporting, say, the air war against the Islamic State are allowed to run, it presents something of a double standard, said Murphy, who quit the Province in 2013 and now syndicates his work.

Freedom of speech depends on defying those who make threats against it, whether they have guns or large advertising accounts, he said.

“If we’re going to cut back on freedom because there’s a possible threat, where are we going to be,” Murphy told Yahoo Canada News. “We’re going to end up with no freedom of speech because anything can be taken as possibly provoking somebody somewhere.”

Mosher said he was encouraged by the fact outrage over the attack and support for free expression went beyond the journalism community, including a candlelight vigil in Montreal.

“If we allow a chill then we’re playing right into the hands of the people who did this,” added Henheffer. “We’re showing them that these kinds of attacks are effective and that’s the last thing we want to do.”