Ranjona Banerji: Why it’s not cowardly to differ with Charlie Hebdo

14 Jan,2015

By Ranjona Banerji


While most journalists have stood firm with Charlie Hebdo and condemned the slaughter at the magazine, not all have agreed with the magazine’s position or even carried the cartoons that apparently set off this terrorist act. Across the world we have seen nuanced positions where journalists have explained why their own publications will not or cannot or would not ever imitate Charlie Hebdo.


It would be childish to call these positions cowardly. Rather, it reminds all of us of the restrictions we place on ourselves when we are responsible to a readership. It is easy to get sanctimonious about this but you only need to think about how pornography is not part of your daily newspaper to understand the restrictions already placed on us.


Some columnists like David Brooks in the New York Times defended Charlie Hebdo and then commented that a lot of its content was suitable for college magazines – if that. Some like Teju Cole in the New Yorker have discussed the various hypocrisies in the freedom of expression for all argument. Cartoonist Joe Sacco has used cartoons to explain his difference opinion with Charlie Hebdo in the Guardian – a newspaper which has given money to Charlie Hebdo to continue.


Cartoonists like Hemant Morparia have written about how he felt that Charlie Hebdo was too provocative. Morparia does not seem to mince his words or restrict his ideas but evidently even he places limitations on himself.


Commentaries on journalism – often by people who have little or no experience of journalism – sometimes comment in horrified terms about “self-censorship”. And yet, it is practised all the time because sometimes it is sensible and sometimes it is a question of good taste. What sort of a publication in India today would carry articles which said that it is time we returned to treating some castes as untouchables? The Constitution of India has promised us equality and no discrimination on the basis of caste. If you are a believer in the superiority of your own caste and the inferiority of others, do you have the right to freedom of expression and is a publication forced to give space to your point of view?


This may be an extreme example I know but I have made it only to point out that this is not a black and white issue. Politician Subramanian Swamy wrote an opinion piece which was deeply offensive to many since it argued that Muslims who do not acknowledge their Hindu ancestry should be denied their voting rights. DNA carried the piece after some argument within the newsroom one hears, but most mainstream journals would not have and with good reason.


The right answer here is that every journalist and publication has the right to decide how far it wants to go. We are circumscribed by laws and society whether we like it or not. France has its own laws and its own ideas and even it has had to answer for its long and unsavoury history of anti-Semitism with proscriptions on freedom of speech.


Europe has to deal with the difficulty of neo-Nazi movements and how far they are allowed to go. The US sees conservative religious groups makes the most outrageous and offensive comments about the LGBT communities and people whose sexual and lifestyle choices they do not agree with.


We cannot pretend that everywhere in the world freedom of expression is absolute and only Muslim extremists do not understand this.


But yes, as journalists, we must defend freedom of expression in absolute terms no matter how we practise it.


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5 responses to “Ranjona Banerji: Why it’s not cowardly to differ with Charlie Hebdo”

  1. Draconis says:

    The confusion I have is what is provocative and what is hate speech? Who decides what is provocative and where to draw the line? My belief is that an idea or philosophy can and must be open to criticism. However, attaching demeaning labels to groups or criticizing a race is out of line. You can criticize hinduism or islam but not say demeaning things about hindus or Muslims. Thoughts?

  2. Rajeev says:

    The point, Ranjona, is not whether freedom of expression is absolute. The point is, should threats or acts of violence decide the limits? You are right, some of Charlie’s cartoons are juvenile. But who made the magazine popular? Did any of us even know of or care for its existence seven years ago? We have only a few idiotic bigots to thank for this. Now that the issue has come to a head, can we have a “yes, but” response? I think not. We have been forced to take sides and, to paraphrase the immortal words of Dubya, if you are not with freedom of expression, you are against it.

  3. Manab Mitra says:

    Re Subramanian Swamy, nothing he says about Muslims should be accepted without independent confirmation.

  4. madhumita ghosh says:

    The pen may be provocative, but the answer is not the gun. Period. That aside we can argue, what’s satire, seditious speech, right of expression. As you’ve said, most publications print according to their position. Most in India are sensitive to religious sentiment and hopefully exercise “responsible” journalism.

  5. deadlyrocker says:

    3 words ‘Je suis Charlie’

    Thanks Ranjona.

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