When in Doubt, Choose Freedom of Speech

The majority of the French press breathed a great sigh of relief when Philippe Val, editor of satirical weekly newspaper "Charlie Hebdo", was acquitted after being brought to trial for reprinting the controversial Muhammad caricatures. Bernard Schmid reports from Paris

​​A great deal was hanging upon a verdict that was eagerly awaited by the French media. Most newspapers and magazines after all had nailed their colours to the mast in support of Charlie Hebdo. For many journalists, therefore, the judgement of March 22 was one to be viewed with satisfaction – Philippe Val's acquittal having amounted to a successful defence of the principle of the "right to satire".

This was an issue for the left-wing liberal daily Libération, for example, which in a leader article in February 2006 had given its own reasons for not publishing the Muhammad caricatures, claiming that some of these were tasteless and insulting to Muslims. At the same time, however, the editorial also stressed the importance of defending the right to freedom of expression.

Tendency towards self-censorship

On the other hand, "Plantu", probably France's best-known cartoonist, who has worked for the liberal evening paper Le Monde for decades, took up a minority position on the issue. In contrast to the attitude of most of the papers, he does not see the freedom of the press as having been strengthened by the verdict.

For him, it's much more a case of regretting that the trial had to take place at all. With the debate on the caricatures having "wrongly" given Muslims the feeling that they were collectively under attack, this verdict would now be perceived as a "new affront".

He fears that it may in the future lead to an increasing tendency towards self-censorship in the minds of journalists, even when there are not necessarily any legal consequences to be feared.

Several Muslim organisations had brought charges against the editorship of Charlie Hebdo. Through the reprinting of the caricatures it was claimed, the newspaper had collectively stigmatised Muslims in France as well as in other countries simply "because of their adherence to a particular religion".

Subliminal suggestions

Defamation of this kind is a punishable offence under several articles of French media law ("law of 29th July 1881 on freedom of the press").

Offenders in such cases of defamation of groups on the basis of their "belonging to or not belonging to a particular ethnic group, nation, race or religion" face a possible penalty of up to one year's imprisonment or a fine of up to 45,000 euros.

It was the reprinting of the caricature by Kurt Westergaard, which had formerly appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten which caused the greatest furore. It shows the prophet Muhammad with turban in the form of a bomb – complete with burning fuse. This, according to the complainants, suggested that all Muslims were potential terrorists.

The Prophet "overwhelmed by fundamentalists"

Charlie Hebdo defended its position by making reference to its basic principles, which although anti-clerical, also emphasised the need to fight against racism. Given that the paper's own title page from February 8th 2006, depicted a Prophet who, according to the accompanying caption has been, "overwhelmed by fundamentalists" and is complaining bitterly about being loved by "fools", there could, they argued, be no doubt "as to how the publication was meant to be interpreted."

​​The abuse of the Islamic religion by political groups which claim to be acting in its name was what was being criticised – there was no intention to defame the world's 1.2 billion Muslims.

There was in any case little doubt that the verdict would find in the accused's favour, given that the prosecutor, representing the French public prosecutor's office, had also recommended acquittal following the two-day trial. From the start, the hearing had taken a course that made a conviction seem an extremely unlikely outcome.

Age-old European image

Nevertheless, one of the three incriminating caricatures in particular was to remain a source of controversial debate. The above-mentioned sketch featuring the bomb turban and its suggestion of a link between Islam as religion and current terrorism.

Several of the prominent public figures who had been invited as defence witnesses by the Charlie Hebdo journalists or by their lawyer also appeared to be rather reticent when it came to giving their opinions on this caricature.

The francophone Tunisian philosopher and Islam expert Abdelwahab Meddeb, for example, who confesses to being an atheist, or at least agnostic, declared that the caricature might indeed be construed as insulting for some people.

This kind of representation of the Prophet of Islam was one, he said, that went back to an age-old European image of the Muslim religion as a fanatical, warlike and cruel rival to the West.

The meaning of the context

But in order to engage with Islam in a meaningful way, it was necessary to acquire a thorough knowledge of the religion; it must not be superficially judged. Meddeb, though, was also careful to make it clear that he defended the right of Charlie Hebdo's editors to print the cartoons, because by doing so they were acting in the interests of freedom of speech and public debate.

The judges had similar points to make in their summing up. In their reasons for the judgement, they first acknowledged that "this drawing – viewed in isolation – could be taken as a general affront to the followers of this religious faith" or as something that characterised them as potentially dangerous.

However the caricature "could not be treated as something detached from the context of its publication."

The Paris court ruled that, in the context of the accompanying articles and of the tradition of the satirical paper, there had been "no deliberate intention of directly and gratuitously offending the Muslim community".

Bernard Schmid

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Ron Walker


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