Defying the Assassin’s Veto

Jean Cabut
Jean Cabut; drawing by Pancho
Jean Cabut, known by the pen name Cabu, one of the cartoonists killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo; drawing by Pancho Graells

The massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris on January 7 was an attempt to impose the assassin’s veto. Where the heckler’s veto says merely “I will shout you down,” the assassin’s version is “dare to express that and we will kill you.” Instead of the academic’s metaphorical “publish or perish” we have the Kouachi brothers’ “publish and perish.” In the quarter-century since the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, this has become one of the largest threats to free speech in the West, and certainly the most extreme.

Currently, this threat comes mainly from Islamist killers, but the Italian mafia use it too. We must be concerned about the underlying religious and political ideology, but what changes everything is the use of violence to impose your taboos. If extreme Islamist views were advanced by entirely peaceful means, there would still be an issue, but it would not be this issue. If Buddhists, nationalists, or mafiosi kill people, or credibly threaten to kill them, simply to stop the expression of certain views or tastes, that is also the assassin’s veto.

Working out how to defeat the assassin’s veto is one of the great challenges of our time. Among the many questions that arise is whether or not to republish images at which fanatics have chosen to take such violent offense that they murder those who made them. Was there an editor in the West who did not agonize over the republication question in the hours and days after the massacre? The New York Times reported that its executive editor, Dean Baquet, spent “about half of my day” doing so, and, by his own account, changed his mind twice. At The Guardian in London, an intense debate rolled all through Thursday. In the week that followed, the record of who did or did not publish became itself a major news story. “To print or not to print,” as the London Evening Standard rather predictably put it.

I became closely involved in this debate because, on the morning after the attack, I wrote an appeal for a week of solidarity in which a broad range of European newspapers, broadcasters, and bloggers would republish carefully selected cartoon covers from Charlie Hebdo—by no means just those of Muhammad—with a commentary explaining why they were doing so. I suggested that readers and viewers should be warned in advance that the cartoons would be shown, but the images should not be pixelated or redacted. I gave two main reasons for this initiative: to show that violent intimidation of free expression would not work and to enable readers to make up their own minds. The criterion of newsworthiness was clearly met: there was an overwhelming public interest in readers (viewers, Internet users) having the relevant information. And the only way you can reach a proper judgment on the very particular, no-holds-barred French genre of caricature practiced by Charlie Hebdo is to look at a representative sample of its cartoons.

My appeal was published in some ten papers, from El País and La Repubblica to Gazeta Wyborcza and The Hindu, and discussed in others, including Le Monde and The Guardian. There followed several days of intense public and private debate, including personal exchanges with several editors. What I write here draws on that experience, and learns from it.

The week of solidarity did not happen. Danish, Dutch, and Belgian papers said that they had done it already, or something similar, as had many in France. East European papers, such as Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland, printed both my appeal and a range of cartoons, as did La Repubblica in Italy. Most British papers did not republish the original cartoons, although The Guardian and The Independent reprinted Charlie Hebdo’s memorial cover a week later. It showed a mournful Muhammad holding a sign saying “Je suis Charlie,” and above him the words “all is forgiven.”*

More was published online than was printed or broadcast. Quite a few European papers posted images on their own websites that they did not print in the paper. The BBC reproduced the Charlie Hebdo memorial cover in a story on its website, citing its “editorial judgement that the images are central to reporting the story.” It then told television viewers that they could find the image on its website. In the US, purely online publications and platforms, such as Slate, The Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed, published the cartoons much more quickly and fully than those with one foot still firmly in print or broadcasting.

In the end, everyone did their own thing. Here was “media pluralism” in action. This is what independent, diverse, highly competitive publications, broadcasters, and platforms do, especially under the time pressure of a breaking news story. They make their own judgments, in line with their own editorial values, tastes, and styles.

“Nothing wrong with that,” you may say. Or is there? The thinking behind my appeal was that we face a collective-action problem. Every individual editor, left to decide alone, might reach a different decision from the one he or she would make if confident of being among many. More editors would publish if they knew that others were doing the same. I believe this analysis was borne out by what happened. For example, the editor of The Independent said that he was torn between his instinct to publish the images and fears for the safety of his staff, “and I think it would have been too much of a risk to unilaterally decide in Britain to be the only newspaper that went ahead and published.” The key word there is “unilaterally.” That those fears were anything but groundless was shown by the Hamburger Morgenpost. Its offices were firebombed the day after it republished some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

Most striking was the case of Jyllands-Posten, the paper that published the original “Danish cartoons” of Muhammad in 2005. Whereas many Danish papers republished the Charlie Hebdo ones, Jyllands-Posten did not, citing its “unique position” and concerns for employees’ safety. Flemming Rose, the man who commissioned the original cartoons and is now the paper’s foreign editor, told the BBC frankly, “We caved in.” “Violence works,” he added, and “sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.”

He thus strikingly answered an appeal made by the British columnist Nick Cohen in a panel discussion at The Guardian: “If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say that. The most effective form of censorship is one that nobody admits exists.” As if in response, the Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley would next day write: “I am not Charlie, I am not brave enough.” (In the meantime, there has developed a rather tiresome subgenre of “I am not Charlie” prose.) While accusations of cowardice whizz around the Internet, I would like to see the person—probably an anonymous blogger, personally risking nothing—who charges Flemming Rose with cowardice. Whatever you think of the wisdom of his commissioning the Danish cartoons back in 2005, cowardly it was not.

Moreover, fear for the safety of your staff is not to be compared with fear for your own safety. Who would doubt that this is a legitimate concern for an employer? And there were important other considerations in play. Few would suspect Glenn Greenwald of journalistic timidity, but he came out strongly in favor of distinguishing between defending the cartoonists’ right to “say it,” and endorsing the content of what they drew. Personally, I think he understates the artistic merit and satirical value of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, especially when you take them not individually but as a whole outrageous genre, blending the legacies of Rabelais, Marat, and Dada in a heady post-’68 brew. But Greenwald’s general point is plainly right: “Je suis Charlie” cannot be taken to mean “I endorse everything Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists drew.”

The Guardian’s editor in chief, Alan Rusbridger, argued passionately that The Guardian should not change its own tone and values under terrorist pressure or the moral blackmail of the twittersphere. Among the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were some very offensive ones that The Guardian “would never in the normal run of events publish,” and it would not reprint them. It would stick to its own standards of liberal civility.

There were also real concerns about the potentially divisive impact of publishing images of Muhammad that many Muslims who had no sympathy with violent Islamists would find offensive. I have to acknowledge, as someone who called for republication, that the way the debate moved on from murders that most European Muslims could wholeheartedly condemn to controversy around the publication of images of their Prophet highlighted those divisions.

The New York Times’s Baquet told Politico that an important consideration for him was “the Muslim family in Brooklyn.” Yet The New York Times has occasionally published images of anti-Semitic cartoons when they were directly relevant to a news story—relying on the Jewish family in Brooklyn to understand why it was doing so. It has published a photo of Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, showing a black Madonna “with a clump of elephant dung on one breast and cutouts of genitalia from pornographic magazines in the background”—relying on the Christian family in Brooklyn to appreciate that this was Art.

Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane ­Charbonnier, known as Charb, also killed in the attack; drawing by John Springs

The Associated Press said it would not republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Muhammad because “it’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images,” but twitterati swiftly pointed out that the AP had been selling images of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a famous photograph that shows a crucifix—that is, for Christians, the son of God in the moment of his martyrdom—immersed in urine. (The AP subsequently withdrew that image too.) There are reasons why the musical The Book of Mormon can play to packed houses, whereas you are not likely to see The Book of Muhammad coming to a theater near you anytime soon.

The argument for “respect” is so uncomfortably intertwined with fear of the assassin’s veto. If we are not careful, the conclusion drawn by anyone who wants to impose any taboo will be “go and get a gun.” Our open societies are already perilously close to the point described in Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” I am tempted to argue that, in such moments of violent challenge to free speech, the general norm of civility may need to be sustained by an exceptional act of incivility. Or is there a better way to balance the competing imperatives? Only a “terrible simplificateur,” to borrow a phrase from Jacob Burckhardt, would pretend that these are not genuinely difficult choices.

What have we learned? First, it is unrealistic to expect coordinated action when free, diverse media are facing a breaking news story. Herding a thousand tigers would be easier. This leaves the collective-action problem that I have described. Among editors, there is more widespread agreement for publication on grounds of news value than on those of solidarity. And there is a significant difference between publishing online and in print. “To print or not to print” precisely fails to capture the dilemma, for in practice it is already a trilemma: “to print, to put online, or to do neither.” (Substitute “broadcast” for “print” as appropriate.)

Publishing such images online has three great advantages: speed, distance, and individual choice. You can get the material up almost instantaneously, as soon as the news interest is there. It will be more easily accessible for people in less free countries—in this case, especially Muslim-majority states that would ban publication in their own jurisdictions. (Turkey has said it will prosecute the newspaper Cumhuriyet for publishing four pages of cartoons and articles from the memorial issue of Charlie Hebdo.) And people can more easily choose whether they want to view images that they might find offensive.

If it’s printed on the front page, it’s difficult not to see it—even if you’re just walking past the newsstand. Not so online. On the website of an Oxford University project on free speech that I lead,, we have adopted what I call the “1-click away principle.” Anything that one might reasonably expect to be grossly offensive to a significant number of people is one click away. Far from limiting free speech, there is an important sense in which this enhances it. The golden coin of free speech has two sides: the rights of the speaker and those of the listener (viewer, reader, user). Within limits prescribed by law, and the softer norms of custom, you should be able to depict what you like and I should be able to view what I like. Or not, if I don’t want to.

It is, however, not good enough to say “we don’t need to publish this because it’s on the Internet anyway.” The Internet is not some detached universal space, run by untouchable Olympians. What this sentence actually means is: “We don’t need to do it because someone else has taken the risk.” Wikipedia, for example, is a repository for many controversial images. But Wikipedia also has volunteer editors, and the full-time staff of the Wikimedia foundation, who could be targeted as much as any journalists.

So here is one suggestion. It has emerged in conversations with the editor of The New York Review, Robert Silvers, drawing on his own more than fifty years of experience of making difficult editorial decisions. Why not establish a website specifically dedicated to republishing and making accessible to the widest readership offensive images that are of genuine news interest, but which, for a variety of reasons, many journals, online platforms, and broadcasters would hesitate to publish on their own? Such a site would be a prime target for hackers, so it would need cybersecurity better than the social media accounts of the US military’s Central Command, which were hacked by Islamists at the time of the Charlie Hebdo affair. Given widespread hostility to the United States, especially in the Islamic world, this project should probably not be US-led. Perhaps Iceland, which has set out to offer a global free speech space with its International Modern Media Institute, could act as a national host. International organizations of journalists would be obvious partners. There would be a case for keeping the site’s staff anonymous, and perhaps even its board, since otherwise they too would attract the assassins’ attention. If anonymity can be used to cloak evil, why not employ it to guard good?

It would need strong editorial procedures, both to authenticate the images (something that does not happen automatically) and to put them in context. For example, it is very difficult to understand what Charlie Hebdo was up to if you see only one or two of its cartoon covers. When you see twenty, carefully selected and explained, you realize that the magazine’s cartoonists were grossly, outrageously offensive about almost all their targets—the pope, French President François Hollande, and Jews as well as Muhammad. You may not like it, but you will understand it.

It might still be risky for publications in Turkey, the Middle East, Pakistan, Indonesia, or even India to link to this site, but it would be a lot less dangerous than for them to publish the material themselves. If the site became established, Internet-savvy readers around the world would know where to go anyway. And no Muslim, or member of any other offended group, could have any reasonable objection—only unreasonable ones, which would still be legion. After all, as in earlier cases, such as the Danish cartoons, the global wake of the Charlie Hebdo affair has seen people injured and killed in faraway places such as Pakistan and Niger, during tumultuous demonstrations by protesters many of whom have almost certainly never seen the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and know nothing of the context. But that is no reason for us not to use reason, and a standard of reasonableness, when we reasonably can.

This proposal for a kind of safe haven for cartoons carries its own dangers. It might make it too easy for editors to pass the buck on difficult decisions, leaving the minority who wish to publish, for reasons not just of news value but also of solidarity, as exposed as they are now—or even more so. It could also lead to what the British writer Kenan Malik has called an “auction of victimhood,” with offended groups competing to see if they can get their taboo images off regular pages and into this special space. It would have to be very carefully developed and managed to avoid such unintended consequences. If it will not lead to a net increase in freedom of expression, and freedom from fear, it should not be done at all. Quite possibly, a discussion of the pros and cons of this idea will already lead to a better one. What does seem very clear, however, is that the current position is profoundly unsatisfactory. It sows confusion—and leads to mud-slinging—among people who are all, in their different styles, friends of free speech, and hence gives comfort to the enemies of that foundational freedom.

The assassin’s veto will not be defeated by any single measure, nor by carrying on as we are now. We must be foxes, not hedgehogs, to recall Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction. We need to know and do many things. Here is one we should consider.

—January 22, 2015

  1. *

    Some commentators and publications have said that the nose can be seen as suggesting a penis, and the shape of the turban two large testicles. Asked about this, the cartoonist, Luz, responded (according to Libération), “I’ve always drawn him like that. In any case, if he has a pair of balls on his head, he is very well shaved.” This catches something of the irreverent playground spirit characteristic of Charlie Hebdo. However I, along with many others, did not see this hidden obscenity in the cartoon. What we are shown is in fact a very mild image of Muhammad weeping, with a message of forgiveness that is quite remarkable from a cartoonist whose close friends and colleagues have just been massacred.