The power of slogans is awesome. “I am Charlie Hebdo” is one powerful slogan that will be around a long time.
As a condemnation of terror and violence, and as an upholding of the freedom of expression, it’s robust. As a tribute to the courage of the cartoonists and editors who died exercising that freedom in spite of threats to their lives, it’s fitting. As an affirmation of our common humanity with all the victims of the Paris killings—journalists, police officers and Jews—it tugs at the heartstrings.
But slogans don’t solve problems. And I won’t join in the chanting of it, as that could be mistaken for approval of the magazine’s slanderous message.
In the exercise of freedom of expression, content matters. So does social context. If you depict the Prophet of Islam as having exaggerated Middle Eastern facial features at a time when Muslims in Europe are being marginalized by a spread of nativist sentiments, you are spawning social conflict.
I still say no to censorship. No to prior restraints. But once a publication has exercised freedom of expression, it must be answerable for any harm that its message has inflicted on any individual or society. And if there are valid grievances against that message, the state must provide avenues for redress.
Hence, wise libel laws are needed. And the state must regulate with wisdom. Where do you get that wisdom? Not from a slogan.
Driven by a slogan rather than by pragmatism, interior ministers of the European Union have called on Internet providers to strike out content that incite hatred and terror. The French government has arrested dozens of people for hate speech on the web, including a popular anti-Semitic comedian. The British government wants Internet companies to let intelligence operatives eavesdrop on the conversation of service users.
Unfortunately, as a New York Times editorial has noted, policy-makers don’t know a damn thing about how the Internet works, so their half-baked measures will end up mangling civil liberties without protecting the citizenry.
To get the wisdom to craft effective measures for safeguarding freedom of expression while preventing its abuse, you’ve to go for dialogue. A dialogue that involves policy-makers, media practitioners (especially Internet service providers) and religious leaders who represent communities often adversely affected by media content.
There once was a useful forum on media content and on how to avoid the kind of tumult caused by the so-called “Muhammad cartoons crisis of 2006.” This was the Global InterMedia Dialogue (GIMD) organized by the governments of Indonesia and Norway in response to that crisis.
Held alternately in Bali and Oslo between 2006 and 2008, it brought together, at one time, some 130 highly reputed media practitioners from 67 countries to engage in cross-cultural dialogue to promote freedom of expression, mutual understanding and diversity.
Strangely to me, the two governments merely facilitated the exchange of views among the media practitioners without engaging in the dialogue themselves.
In the aftermath of the Paris killings, it’s urgent that something like the GIMD should be organized again. But this time, policy-makers and religious leaders should take part as strongly as the media practitioners in the actual dialogue. The media practitioners involved in the dialogue should include Internet service providers.
The aim should be to craft practical measures that will promote freedom of expression while protecting the citizenry from the impact of hate messages in all media. The agreed measures should be acceptable to all concerned.
It would greatly help if governments stopped thinking of hate speech in mass media as solely a security problem. It’s also a problem of social justice, of how to serve both civil liberties and the human rights of religious communities.
It’s a problem you can’t solve on a wing and a slogan.