The international community has demonstrated significant support for the people of France in the wake of recent incidents that appear to have been designed to challenge the freedom of expression that exists within the country. The twelve staff members from the left-wing satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and several further individuals involved in the separate incidents have galvanized leaders and communities around the world.
In total, seventeen lives were consumed at the hands of three suspects over a three-day period. In the first incident on the 7th February, Said and Cherif Kouachi targeted the offices Charlie Hebdo, claiming offense at the magazine’s willingness to print cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad and its satirical approach to religion in general. The pair then led French police on a chase that resulted in a standoff in the commuter town of Dammartin-en-Goele in which neither brother survived.
The next day in Paris, Amedy Coulibaly was responsible for the passing away of a policewoman who was shot. The following day a kosher supermarket in Paris was targeted as Coulibaly ended the lives of 4 hostages and held 15 more captive.
Following the resolution of the events in Paris there was widespread support with a social media campaign “Je Suis Charlie” that quickly gained international momentum. The campaign evolved from just social media to other demonstrations of solidarity, for example: athletes wearing “Je Suis Charlie” t-shirts at sporting events around the world and multiple signs of support by attendees during the Golden Globe awards. The largest declaration of defiance and unity to date was the gathering of up to 1.6 million people on the streets of Paris involving 40 world leaders. Between 3 and 4 million people were reported to have taken part in demonstrations across the whole of France.
France is estimated to have around 4.7 million Muslim citizens; many of North African heritage due to French former colonies in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Imams in Paris called for Muslims to march to show solidarity in the face of extremism. Some have focused on the fact that one of the police officers who passed away was a Muslim as evidence that the individuals inciting the incidents are inaccurately using religion as a reason for their actions.
The challenges faced by Western governments in attempting to prevent events such as these are highlighted by the variety of Islamic extremist groups. Different organisations have differing objectives and backgrounds. In addition, their objectives are often at odds with each other, as it appears is the case between ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Freedom of speech and expression might be strengthened and preserved by all governments in light of the recent events in Paris. It may seem that maintaining these freedoms is the most effective way to demonstrate defiance in the face of actions such as those witnessed between the 7th and the 9th of January.
Charlie Hebdo has become a symbol of the right to freedom of speech and expression. The magazine publishers remain defiant and have published a cover depicting the Prophet Muhammad holding a placard saying, “Je Suis Charlie” and weeping. The international media community may experience some polarization regarding who may be willing to reproduce the image.
The global solidarity shown during yesterday’s marches in Paris was underscored at one point by the presence of Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the leaders of Israel and Palestine respectively, being just four places apart in the front rank of the march. Other leaders who joined Netanyahu and Abbas were French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
How might the events in Paris strengthen freedom of speech within journalism?