Five years ago, the satirical and controversial magazine Charlie Hebdo was practically an unknown entity outside of France. Today, the magazine is an international media brand publishing content in German and English. Nearly 2.1 million people have liked its English-language Facebook page where the editors describe their publication this way:
“Charlie Hebdo is a punch in the face, against people who refuse to think, against people with no imagination. Charlie Hebdo is grotesque, because so is politics, and so is life. It’s a paper of thinking people who need a good laugh…It chuckles at people who whine that they need cars or cellphones to be happy. And it doesn’t believe in the afterlife, so it’s got nothing to lose.”
In January 2015, you might recall seeing #JeSuisCharlie trending on Twitter. Perhaps you know someone who turned the hashtag into a Facebook cover photo. And you may have caught CNN’s live coverage in the days and weeks after two Al Qaeda members murdered 12 people at the Parisian offices of Charlie Hebdo, including nine of the magazine’s journalists and cartoonists and a police officer. Three other journalists were also shot, and they recovered.
I was so #JeSuisCharlie that I wrote a seven-part series about free speech on Creativity Is Contagious, my WordPress blog. For each article I chose a song to help illustrate my point. (Hebdo is short for hebdomadaire, which means weekly in French.) My passion for free expression pushed me digitally, editorially, and creatively.
Later that year, I published Creativity Is Risky: Free Speech in a Charlie Hebdo World, a 38-page, multimedia, music-infused e-zine. I reached out to friends old and new to make it happen: my French and journalism professors; a French cartoonist and data scientist; concerned citizens on both sides of the Atlantic; and a New York-based creative team consisting of an art director, photographer, copy editor, and designer who knew the ISSUU self-publishing platform.
As voting in the U.S. presidential election gets underway, France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor is trying the accomplices in the Charlie Hebdo murders. Both situations are centered on the right to free speech and a free, uncensored press as core tenets of democracy.
More than 100 French news organizations have written an open letter urging the public to defend free expression. Included in those publications are newspapers of record Le Monde and Le Figaro, Elle and Le HuffPo, and advertising and communications trades CB News and Stratégies. The letter comes with a new hashtag, #DéfendonsLaLiberté (Let’s Defend Freedom).
The opening paragraph of “Together, Let’s Defend Freedom” acknowledges how divergent the publishers’ ideas often are. The urgent need to defend free expression, in all its forms, has brought them together.
“Today, in 2020, some of you receive death threats on social media when you express certain opinions,” the letter states. “Our country’s laws provide every one of you with a framework authorising you to speak, write and draw like few other places in the world…more than ever in these uncertain times we must unite our strength to drive out fear and ensure the triumph of our indestructible love of freedom.”
But if free speech and satire were brands, would the French buy them?
French advertising and publishing executive Olivier Fleurot brings an informed analysis. After seven years as CEO of the Financial Times, he spent two decades at French advertising holding company Publicis Groupe. During this time, he helmed MSLGROUP, the company’s PR network for which I ran the 22-country blog and published e-zines on social media trends.
“In France, we’ve been fighting for centuries to separate anything linked to religion from the state,” Fleurot says. “The foundation of the French Republic is a secular state. It’s very important to understand that. At times, I think it’s difficult for many Americans to understand how deep it is in our culture.”
France’s 500-year tradition of satire provides the context for the outrageousness of some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, which lampoon everything—and everyone—in sight, not just religious institutions.
In a cartoon several years ago, French actress Catherine Deneuveis was referred to as a “suspicious package sur La Croisette,” the boulevard overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, a scene familiar to anyone who has attended the Cannes Film Festival. (The cartoon was drawn by Renaud “Luz” Luzier, who was not physically injured during the 2015 attacks; it was his birthday and he showed up late to work.)
On September 2, the day the trial began, the magazine republished its notorious 2015 cartoons of Mohammed, along with the phrase “Tout Ça Pour Ça” (All This for That).
“You can consider that they go too far, it’s gross, it’s insulting your beliefs,” Fleurot says. “To Islamic fundamentalists, cartoons that have just been republished by Charlie Hebdo are not something we should be allowed to do, although it is completely legal under French law. But to them, it is not.”
Indeed, Al Qaeda threatened the publication for republishing the cartoons. Last week, a 25-year-old Pakistani man stabbed two documentary producers outside the magazine’s former offices, admitting to prosecutors that he had wanted to set the building on fire, according to France 24.
The research that Charlie Hebdo commissioned over the summer to gauge the French public’s attitudes on free speech was intended to provide context for the trial. But last week’s attack makes the move even more prescient. As the U.S. feels the pain of its own divisions, so, too, is France seeing a rift between the general population and Muslims.
The August 31 study, the title of which translates to The right to blaspheme, caricatures, freedom of expression…Are the French Still “Charlie”?, was conducted and published by French polling firm Ifop and the Jean Jaures Foundation. Ifop conducted online surveys in August of a representative sample of 1,020 French people 15 years and older—a diverse group by gender, location, occupation, and religion. Separately, Ifop surveyed 515 practicing Muslims.
While 88% of the people in the national sample said they totally condemn the 2015 attacks, only 59% of them believe that Charlie Hebdo and other news organizations were “right” in the “name of free expression” to publish satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Of the surveyed Muslims, 72% said they totally condemn the attacks but just 19% said Charlie Hebdo had the right to publish the cartoons.
When it comes to Gen Z and millennials in France, free speech isn’t flying off the shelves.
Of people ages 15 to 24 in the national sample, only 72% totally condemn the Charlie Hebdo attacks, while 21% do not. Of young Muslims, 62% totally condemn the attacks, and 26% do not.
“If you want to defend freedom of expression, you have to stop being young,” writes Charlie Hebdo Editor-in-Chief Gérard Biard. “In 2020, when you are between 15 and 24 years old, freedom of expression is probably not a priority, unlike the fable maintained by billionaires who own social networks.”
According to 2019 data, more Americans support the idea of a free press than do the French.
Of French people surveyed last year by the Pew Research Center, 65% believe that it is “very important that the media can report the news without state or government censorship.” Of the surveyed Americans, 80% held that belief.
American media executives and activists are coming out in support of Charlie Hebdo and the concept of free expression. Meanwhile American journalists are putting their lives at risk to cover the racial justice movement rightfully celebrated by brands and the ad industry in, for example, an Ad Council anti-racism PSA and Nike’s “Don’t Do It” campaign.
“The French media’s message to the French population was a powerful and important statement, not only about the importance of a free press but also about the meaning of freedom itself,” says David Chavern, CEO of News Media Alliance, which is urging advertisers to support fact-based journalism in light of the boycott against Facebook, which has been widely criticized for not controlling the presence of misinformation on its site.
Dean Ridings, the CEO of America’s Newspapers, one of the trade groups supporting the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, says Americans “have been fortunate to enjoy true freedom of the press in the United States…unfortunately, we have seen those rights challenged in recent years, and our journalists are facing threats in our own country.”
Indeed, what would life be like if we could not scrutinize our institutions, hold informed debates, and laugh at ourselves? It’s one of the major points of my Creativity Is Risky e-zine from five years ago.
Since then, ad revenues at newspapers have continued to plummet while Facebook and Google gobble up the majority of advertisers’ online marketing dollars. The pandemic is placing even more financial pressure on publishers. As newspaper revenues fall, so does the demand for political cartoonists.
Daryl Cagle, owner of cagle.com—which hosts 200,000 cartoons, the single largest resource for contemporary editorial cartoons—says people in his profession are like canaries in the coal mine.
“As the most visible, we’re often the first to suffer from intolerant governments and groups that feel offended by our views,” he says.
“Governments often sue cartoonists to chill their speech and this is especially disturbing in EU countries that are supposed to embrace freedom of the press,” Cagle says. “Regrettably, the world continues to get worse for journalists and cartoonists.”
James Ylisela, Jr., author, co-founder of Ragan Consulting Group, and one of my graduate professors at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, wrote the epilogue to Creativity Is Risky. He opened with a Salman Rushdie quote: “Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.”
Today, Ylisela is thinking about Sinclair Lewis, author of “It Can’t Happen Here,” a 1935 novel about an autocratic wannabe who wins the presidency and imposes totalitarian rule for the sake of traditional values.
“The book has been largely forgotten, but I wish I could somehow deposit a copy into every mailbox in America. Yet another reason to support the U.S. Post Office,” Ylisela says.
Ylisela connects the Charlie Hebdo tragedy to contemporary American rhetoric, to journalists being called “the enemy of the people.”
“But maybe we don’t need the book,” Ylisela says. “People are stirring. Not just demonstrators for racial equality, though they may be the greatest catalyst for change. Not just the news media.
“No, what’s happening is that people, regular people, people like you and me, are awake. They are using the greatest tool of free speech ever invented: their vote. The ultimate expression of free speech.”
Feature art by Arifur Rahman / Wikimedia