What ELSE Should We Talk About When We Talk About Charlie Hebdo?

Franck Prevel/Getty Images

Franck Prevel/Getty Images

The tragedy at Charlie Hebdo sparked many reactions. For those unfamiliar with the background — which must be a rare few at this point, Charlie Hebdo is a French magazine filled with comics, political and religious satire, and its fair share of content that ranges from the offensive to the hilarious to the intelligent. The publication’s headquarters in Paris were attacked, and 12 people, comics, journalists, and police officers, were shot and killed by Islamic gunmen. Al-Qaeda has since laid claim to the attack.

Now, discussions that have resulted have really run the gamut. Some of the reporting has been overzealous and almost smutty feeling. Tragedy sells. Other responses have been emotional but ultimately positive, supportive, and caring responses targeting everything from the families affected, to France as a whole, to comics, to political and religious critique, to even more broad subject matter they felt was attacked, like democracy or freedom of speech. Still others have taken the opportunity to critique the publication, saying its content was at times almost needlessly racist or offensive without humor. There’s a fine line between critical satire and simply drawing an unflattering picture of a Muslim and saying “look how dumb.”

Nuance, message, and meaning are rather vital ingredients. But just as no single person can be judged by a single action, a publication like Charlie Hebdo must be taken as a whole for what it is, and while some comics arguably missed that mark, others were brilliant, and in the end it comes down to taste and how each individual draws the subjective line between satire and pointless negativity or xenophobia. And, of course, no amount of offensive comics can justify an attack on freedom of speech — a point emphasized time and time again — except for by those who unpacked a whole new argument that if governments prevent freedom of speech to avoid inciting riots, the same should be done to avoid baiting terrorists.

Now, I don’t agree with this argument, but I suppose in the end it never hurts to have as many ideas, concepts, and discussions in the air as possible (and here we’ve come right back around to the vital importance of freedom of speech). The possible exception to this argument is the regrettable xenophobic, anti-Muslim response that predictably resulted not long after the attack. Show me a man or woman who was shocked by this backlash to the violence, and I’ll show you a fool. Or perhaps someone who simply has far greater faith in humanity than I. Either way, it shows humanity at its worst, when it needs its best — but of course this xenophobia was criticized in turn, and so the miracle of open discussion rises to the top again. So, in all this hubbub, what else do we need to talk about?

I do think one topic has been missed, or at least hasn’t been emphasized to the extent it could be. When I considered what coverage I could contribute to the great deal of analysis and reporting done for events in Paris, I found myself either overwhelmed by unnecessary reporting or feeling no need to comment on subject matter already well discussed by experts far better educated and globally placed than me. What I would be comfortable discussing, though, is the fact that we talk about 12 terrible, painful deaths in the French capitol with such emotion and longevity, and why we talk about it so much — to the point where many of my less political acquaintances would complain they are over-inundated with media from it.

We talk about this tragedy in France because it is so rare in France. In 2014, 66 journalists died, 11 media assistants were killed, and 19 citizen journalists were killed, according to Reporters Without Borders. None of them were in France. In 2013, 79 journalists were killed — none in France. In 2012, that number was 87, and again, none were in France.

Now, reporters and journalists, comics and satirists, analysts and cameramen, they’re all different you could argue. People were shocked extremists would kill comics over goofy or offensive drawings of Muhammad, but perhaps an individual stationed in Syria with a camera is a less shocking victim. But be that as it may, there are comics and writers all over the world — not war zone reporters, and not conflict cameramen — who publish considerably less provocative material and see violence as a result. But we do not hear about it. And, again, it’s obvious why. It’s not novel; it’s not news. But, given events in France, this is one useful topic we can discuss and use as motivation for recognition of other violence less often noticed or cared about, much less marched over.

I interned for a short time in a publication in Kathmandu, Nepal. During that time, I spent a while writing an article about transgender and lesbian communities in the city and violence in relationships. In doing my interviews and talking with other reporters, it became very clear just how much danger local reporters faced. As an outsider I was shielded a great deal simply by my foreignness, but I’m aware other journalists did not have this same advantage. And while the office I worked in had a receptionist in front of a coded door, it was one of the few buildings in the entire country that had not been assaulted, whose journalists were not attacked in the same way as others. Across the country, I was told it was quite common for journalists to be threatened, beaten, and shot.

One reporter I spoke with, who covered still-divisive LGBT issues, had been forced underground at one point for a court case she’d covered for the lesbian community. She had gone into hiding and spoke even still with serious concern on her child’s safety and the safety of reporters like herself. Personal anecdotes aside, this is true of countries around the world. Reporters in Russia face incredible pressures from both government and civilians, making free press and objective coverage nearly impossible. Olga Beskova, editor-in-chief of the Sochinskie Novosti (Sochi News), spoke with the Committee to Protect Journalists around the time of the Sochi Olympics. She outlined in no uncertain terms the difficulties journalists face in her country. “Local media largely ignore issues crucial to Sochi residents,” she said at the time.

For some publications, it’s simply concern that their license would be revoked that keeps them to government approved topics and news. For others, there’s a clear threat in the air, and for still others it’s simply hard to find civilians who will speak with journalists because distrust is so extreme. There are countries where having your name printed means hate mail — as really any political writer can probably attest to — and many experience threats or aggression. But the countries that experience outright violence and inherent danger deserve awareness and acknowledgement in the same way Charlie Hebdo does — and amid the onslaught of coverage and discussion that’s come out of the shock and pain in France, other lesser known tragedies gain a voice.

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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