Journalists in Paris Debate the Limits of Free Expression

Several French journalists said the media should act more responsibly, particularly in a country like France where tensions involving marginalized minorities are perpetually high.

“I am not Charlie Hebdo. I am Pasha,” an Albanian journalist thundered in the grand hall at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris on January 14.

It was the second and final debate at a powwow organized by UNESCO in the wake of the shootings that killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris on January 7. The topic was free speech, and a number of journalists were there to defend it—while also calling for a renewed sense of responsibility, sensitivity, and even restraint.

In a mixture of French and English, the Albanian journalist named Pasha argued that members of her profession must acknowledge that the work they do, while rightly protected, could also sometimes harm communities.

It was the kind of opinion rarely voiced in Paris just one week earlier, when, in the days following the attacks, the overarching conversation tilted defiantly in support of freedom of expression. Countless Parisians lined up to buy the post-attack issue of Charlie Hebdo, and journalists around the world stood in solidarity, calling for free speech at any cost.

And while the debate certainly reflected the profession’s resilience in the wake of the tragedy, there was also a detectable shift in tone toward a more cautious self-examination.

The debate drew a massive crowd. In the organization’s packed Hall Segur, UNESCO’s director-general Irina Bokova opened the event as attendees who couldn’t get seats thronged the entrance. Outside, Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue was selling out in minutes. Inside, Le Monde’s cartoonist Plantu told the audience that cartoonists must continue their work and not give in to intimidation. Newsweek’s Middle East editor Janine di Giovanni averred: “We need protection.”

But a number of voices called for a reframed debate where journalistic responsibility should play a bigger role in editorial decision making. Omar Belhouchet, the publisher of Algeria’s El Watan said that he wouldn’t republish Charlie Hebdo’s prophet cartoons. “Secularism is a beautiful French invention,” he said. “But we don’t want to hurt the sensibility of our readers.”

Several French journalists said that, indeed, the media should act more responsibly, particularly in a country like France, where tensions involving marginalized minorities are perpetually high. “None of these poor people will hit you. But you have to remember that there are crazy people who will,” one attending journalist told me in private. “In the past, if your coverage was extreme, the government pulled the plug. The situation has changed now.” He was alluding to the fact that in the past, France had banned publications, including Hara-Kiri, Charlie Hebdo’s predecessor, which was outlawed in 1970 for lampooning the death of former French president Charles de Gaulle.

Even those arguing that journalists should not be censored by fundamentalism called for more sensitivity. “The media must mediate and refrain from promoting stereotypes,” said Bariza Khiari, representing Paris in the French upper house of parliament. “We have to recognize the existence and importance of religion as long as religion does not dictate the law.”

All this should be openly discussed within the profession, Khiari said, but also with other stakeholders. “Journalists like to criticize. This is their mission, they should continue to do that, but they should also learn to accept criticism.”

Journalists themselves increasingly agree. Veteran journalist Aidan White, head of the Ethical Journalism Network, a global campaign platform promoting ethical behavior in the media, wrote on Open Democracy: “[E]veryone in the media, and even those would-be journalists outside the newsroom, needs to think carefully about the consequences of what they write and the images they show.”

Such calls are increasingly heard in the profession. Ultimately, freedom of expression is about freedom of choice—including the choice to consider the sensitivities of others.

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The author makes a terrific point. While we are all for freedom of expression, it doesn't not mean that everything deserves to be published. Defining the limits isn't easy, but greater sensitivity is key.

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