The Charlie Hebdo media murders in Paris have sparked a polarised debate in New Zealand about democracy and liberty. At one end of the spectrum the killings are seen as understandable, in terms of being a reaction against alleged oppression and bigotry.
Derek Fox has controversially epitomised this stance, but there are others who hold a more nuanced or moderate version of this point of view. At the other end of the spectrum, democracy is seen to be entirely contingent on free expression, and the right to offend is not only defended but encouraged.
Between these polar points of view, there is much argument about what the killings - and many related concepts - mean for countries like New Zealand.
Appropriately, New Zealand cartoonists have responded to the tragedy with a variety of satirical images - see my blog post, New Zealand cartoons about the Paris Killings . There are a variety of responses in these images - mostly expressing solidarity with the slain, but also addressing issues about islamophobia and hypocrisy.
Critics of free speech and cartoons
The most polarising statement about the Paris killings has come from broadcaster and politician Derek Fox, as reported by Isaac Davison in Paris terror attacks: Derek Fox slammed for 'disgusting' Facebook post. The statements, which have been seen to lend some sort of understanding to the executions, have been widely criticised - see, for example, Sam Hurley's Hawke's Bay Today article, Fox comments condemned by local leaders.
Because Fox was previously a Maori Party candidate for election, his party has been questioned about Fox's views - see Davison's Paris terror attack: Derek Fox's views not ours, says Maori Party. While distancing themselves from Fox's views, party co-leader Marama Fox has stated elsewhere that the party did not wish to criticise Fox for his statements.
Maori Party activist Carrie Stoddart-Smith has also expressed some annoyance with the fact that "these deaths are amplified as some kind of heroic act in the fight for freedom of speech" - see: Freedom: the front for exceptionalism. Stoddart-Smith argues the defence of the cartoonists is actually in aid of Western suppression and oppression of others. She criticises the media for being 'complicit' in this sense.
Victoria University of Wellington legal academic, Mamari Stephens also doesn't rate freedom of speech as being so important. She labels it a "chimera'', and points to how the concept can be seen as merely "shorthand for exclusion, oppression and marginalisation of various groups within NZ society''. She labels "Freedom of Speech as Enabler of New Zealand white male bigotry'' - see her blog post, The Paris attacks, Derek Fox, and the chimera of free speech.
Stephens puts forward the arguments that "in New Zealand free speech is something of a 'one-way street, and apparently extends to having to tolerate, or enable views that may be perpetrating oppression of whatever nature, once again''. Similarly, perhaps the media doesn't warrant any special protection, as "only certain (usually Pakeha) points of view tend to filter through our mainstream media''. Instead of worrying so much about Charlie Hebdo and others, Stephens suggests "The greatest threat to free speech lies within our own tendency to want to stomp on dissenting voices''.
Another Victoria University academic and blogger, Danyl Mclauchlan, suggests that the whole "freedom of speech'' pronouncements in the media are overdone, and is also critical of Charlie Hebdo for mocking Islam - see: Brief thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
It's on the Daily Blog website that you will find the strongest criticisms of the cartoonists, and also a defence of Fox. Martyn Bradbury has questioned whether the French cartoonists really qualified for the protection of free speech, as their cartoons hardly measured up to his definition of "true satire". "For me, 'true satire' understands and highlights the unfair power structures within a society. If your only success as a satirist is to provide ammunition for the oppressors within society, then you have failed as a satirist and are merely racist or bigoted" - see: Am I really Charlie? On freedom of speech, double standards and true satire. Bradbury says "Derek Fox's comments have some validity. His point that the majority culture has free reign to insult and belittle the culture of the minority is genuine''.
Similarly on the Daily Blog, see Curwen Rolinson's critique of what he calls "Freedumb Of Speech'': You Wouldn't Brand Yourself With #IAmWhaleOil.... But for a full defence of freedom of speech on the Daily Blog, see Keith Locke's Free speech for everyone, from Charlie Hebdo to the jihadists.
Many have used the opportunity to critique the cartoonists themselves. Rob Mitchell in his Manawatu Standard editorial, condemns the cartoonists for choosing, "quite deliberately, to antagonise and ridicule some of its audience'' - see: Freedom of expression also requires thought. He says that "In times of uncertainty and instability, especially, that freedom should be a sharp sword wielded with precision, not a dull blade tossed about with abandon and malice''.
See also, Gordon Campbell's On the Charlie Hebdo killings and response.
Standing up for free speech
The reaction against Fox and others who have criticised the cartoonists and the media, has often been equally scathing. On the left, blogger Steven Cowan declares "The ugly beast of identity politics comes into full view'' - see: Freedom for the one who thinks differently.
Also on the left, John Moore has blogged about How the left has failed Charlie Hebdo. Moore argues that the "grotesque response from the left comes from identity politics advocates wanting to be seen as siding with oppressed Muslims''. In doing so, Moore explains that many on the left are actually siding with reactionaries.
And on the right, Lindsay Perigo labels Fox a "Brown Supremacist'', and condemns "the Political Correctness and cultural relativism in whose name people make excuses for Islam" - see: Mohammed's Murderous Minions.
Ex-Labour Party candidate Josie Pagani deplores those who hesitate to display full solidarity with the victims: "The brave and just response to the Paris murders is to stand up for freedom of speech - no buts, no qualifiers."
She points to Labour MP Grant Robertson as someone who has hesitated to give a full defence of the cartoonists. Robertson made statements about the killings that said supporting freedom of expression can mean walking "a moral tightrope'', which Pagani suggest is a cop-out - see: Nous sommes Charlie aussi.
But also on the Pundit blog, Tim Watkin takes another view, suggesting that nuance and complexity does indeed exist in this situation - see: Walking the moral tightrope.
Massey academic Grant Duncan puts the case for the importance of free speech in his blog post, My right to make you look ridiculous. Duncan argues free speech is particularly important for minorities and the oppressed: "Religious and ethnic minority groups benefit from this in particular, as it means that the majority are not allowed to suppress their cultural practices, religious doctrines, languages, etc. Indeed, minority groups can and often do savagely criticise the dominant culture. Victims of oppression are free to express their grievances, as they should be, and that may include ridiculing or satirising 'western' or 'capitalist' values.''
Duncan also raises the issue of the controversial Al Nisbet cartoons of 2013, which were seen as racist: "Perhaps Mr Fox is still upset over the notorious cartoon by Al Nisbet that caused such an outcry in 2013, for being perceived as racist. But, after the murders in Paris, those who drove that outcry might want to think carefully next time about what they may be encouraging.''
Some similar points are also made in today's Dominion Post editorial, Freedom of speech cuts both ways. According to this, freedom of speech "also allows Muslims the right to practise their own religion and even to try to convert others to it. This is a truth recognised by liberal Muslims and it is profound''. The editorial says Fox should be ashamed of himself for betraying "the journalist's duty to speak the truth and respect the facts''.
Is the media under attack in New Zealand?
The Paris killings raise questions about whether freedom of speech is being curtailed globally as well as here in New Zealand. Many editorials and political figures are emphasising the importance of the media for democracy. Yet others suggest there's some hypocrisy at play. For example, yesterday's Sunday Star Times editorial addresses this - it's available on the SST Facebook page: In New Zealand, the threat to free speech is within. The editorial lists the many ways in which the media and free speech has been under attack, not just from the Establishment, but from "the power of the mob'' on Twitter. Therefore, the newspaper argues democracy is not under attack from forces external to New Zealand (terrorism; religious extremism), but from within.
The newspaper editorial also criticises some journalists for being too "bombastic'' in their defiance, arguing "Some humility would not go amiss.'' But a call is also made for freedom of speech to be used on the part of the weak instead of the powerful: "Nobody can dictate how freedom of speech should be used - that would not be freedom. But, at least, remember why we fight for these freedoms: To protect the weak and oppressed, to hold the powerful to account. That's worth fighting for.''
This is also a point made today by satirist Dave Armstrong who says: "Like New Zealand's greatest cartoonist, David Low, I prefer satire that hits at the rich and powerful more than those at the bottom of the heap, though stupidity and fundamentalism in any form is always a good target.''- see: Satire in short supply here.
Armstrong also wonders why everyone thinks satire and freedom of speech is in such strong health here: "Since the terrible, senseless murders in Paris, we have been told by our media and politicians about the importance of satire, and why journalistic freedom is so sacrosanct. Really? Is that why there is almost no satire on television or radio here? Is that why politicians and media celebrities threaten satirists with defamation suits?'' Armstrong also lists the many ways that freedom of the media has been under threat lately from government sources. He says, "let's not kid ourselves that everything is wonderful for journalists and satirists here.'' Similarly, see The Standard's John Key on media freedom.
For another comedian's point of view, it's worth reading Oscar Kightley in Sunday News. His column, entitled "Satire - not worth dying for'' (not available online) discusses his own role in creating satire that often offended people: "bro'Town was loved but we offended plenty of people. Particularly a few brown academics, who would write to us making their points. We valued their opinions and respected their right to disagree with the show. But if angry brown academics ever firebombed our studios, we probably would have listened more. Satire is a craft and a vital one the world needs. Its targets should be the powerful and those in charge. Those who think they run everything, and are beyond reproach.''
Could it happen here?
Could something like the Charlie Hebdo attacks happen here? According to Victoria University professor of religious studies Paul Morris, the risks are 'minimal' - see Matt Nippert's Cartoonists rocked by Paris slayings. Morris also points to the fact that the local media reached an agreement years ago, at the time of the Jyllands-Posten controversy, "not to repeatedly publish the offending material''.
The former editor of the Herald on Sunday, who now works in Australia, has recounted his own experience of worrying about violent attacks on staff: "In New Zealand as editor of the mass circulating Herald on Sunday, I had a particularly worrying first-hand experience. After some aggressive coverage of a national issue, a rabid radio talkback host, a since-sacked Michael Laws, went on air and called on members of the public to shoot my journalists. It was hard to take him seriously, but it didn't stop many of the journalists thinking about their mortality. We had security guards on the door for some time.'' - see Bryce Johns' Could we see terror attack on Australian journalists?.
On a different scale, Kerre McIvor discusses her own experiences with those who have disagreed with her - see: Violence the resort of weak-minded.
Does the media have the right to be offensive?
How should the New Zealand media respond to the Paris tragedy? Cartoonist Tom Scott calls on cartoonists and journalists everywhere not to be intimidated - see Radio New Zealand's Cartoonists, keep drawing - Tom Scott. Scott makes the case for the democratic importance of cartoons.
But isn't there a need for calm and to avoid provocation? Today's Dominion Post editorial, Freedom of speech cuts both ways has some agreement with this, but warns against too much caution: "There is always a danger, of course, that journalists will now pull their punches. It would be easy to avoid robust discussions about Islam out of funk, out of fear that it will offend some dangerous fanatic, while hiding behind the façade of 'respect' and 'tact'. That too would be a mistake.''
The Dominion Post also argues in a previous editorial on the topic, that there is no right for the religious - or otherwise - not be be offended by what is expressed: "Some religious people - Christian and Muslim - think their views deserve a privileged place. They - and others - want the law to ban blasphemy or 'hate speech'. Nonsense. Free speech includes the right to offend others and the right of others to denounce you in equally offensive terms.''- see: Free speech includes the right to offend.
This is a contentious point, and today one Muslim leader is reported as saying that "freedom of expression does not mean I have the right to abuse other people or ridicule their faith'' - see Max Towle's Multi faith vigil condemns terror attacks.
Finally, for an excellent satirical take on causing offence, written by one of New Zealand's more offensive satirists, see Scott Yorke's A thousand apologies.