The attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015 sparked a plethora of articles describing the freedoms of speech and press. The New York Times, like many other media sources, fiercely defended the right of people to offer their opinions, even if such views are unpopular. Despite the clarity of its overall stance, the paper appeared confused about “double standards” in its articles which failed to clarify and distinguish between free speech and hate speech.
In the NY Times lead front page story of January 14 referring to such “double standards”, the paper contrasted the right of Charlie Hebdo to make cartoons of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, to the arrested French “comedian” M’bala M’bala who stated that a Jewish journalist should have been killed in the Nazi gas chambers and that he considers himself like the terrorist who shot and killed four Jews in the Parisian supermarket. Neither clarification nor education was given about the differences and limits of free speech.
The NY Times continued to confuse the public (or itself) in a story the next day by David Carr, which included the following:
- “Not all the French were reveling in unbridled expression of speech. Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a comedian who has made highly provocative statements since the shooting at Charlie Hebdo’s offices, was detained as an “apologist for terrorism” for statements he made on his Facebook page that were seemingly in support of one of the attackers.
- His arrest highlights the fact that one man’s free expression is another man’s hate speech or sedition. In Israel, the conservative Jewish newspaper HaMevaser scrubbed out the German chancellor Angela Merkel from a photograph, along with other female leaders who had participated in a solidarity march in Paris, because photos containing women are considered inappropriate in ultra-Orthodox publications.”
In an effort to educate the Times and its readership, here are three important points to distinguish between various types of speech:
- Concept versus People
- Active versus Reactive Incitement
- Editing versus Censorship
Concept versus People
A central dividing line between freedom of speech and hate speech has to do with the right to discuss concepts as opposed to the right (and limit) to discuss people. Everyone is free to say anything they want about concepts such as: capitalism, communism, Islam and Buddhism. Whether it is religion or economic theory, each topic is considered a concept worthy (perhaps?!) of discussion and debate in a positive or negative fashion. However, speech can descend into “hate speech” (or libel) which is banned by many countries, if people attack either groups or specific human beings.
For example, Louis Farrakhan, a bombastic anti-Semitic Muslim preacher referred to Judaism as a “gutter religion”. He was not brought up on any charges, despite the hateful speech. Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi was not prosecuted for calling Jews the descendants of monkeys and pigs, which could have perhaps been classified as hate speech in some countries because he addressed people rather than a religion.
Active versus Reactive Incitement
A key factor in the distinction of permissible versus prohibited speech revolves around “incitement”. Many countries prohibit speech that incites violence, as does the recent United Nations Resolution 16/18. The UN language:
- “condemns any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, whether it involves the use of print, audio-visual or electronic media or any other means”
The phrase incitement to violence is clear. For example, when an imam in Germany called for killing Jews, that fell under hate speech to incite violence, and the country is now investigating that imam.
However, it is considered completely legal to say things that may involve “reactive incitement”, that is, saying something that may annoy people to the extent that they would use violence. To ban reactive incitement would stifle free speech completely which is what the press sees as the essence of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations. Just because Muslims were insulted by the publishing of cartoons of their prophet, their reaction cannot be the basis to ban that freedom of expression.
Based on the United Nations language, the incitement to discrimination would have to be explored further. Did Charlie Hebdo promote discrimination against Muslims? Was the paper simply making pictures of Mohammed or was it attempting to foster intolerance of all Muslims? The new United Nations law makes a distinction.
The M’bala M’bala calls for a Jewish journalist to be killed in gas chambers and supporting terrorists who killed four innocent Jews are calls for direct and indirect incitement to hostility and violence. Acting Palestinian Authority President Mamoud Abbas praise for martyrs who slaughtered innocents could also be called incitement to hostility and violence.
Fatah officials at naming of Dalal Mughrabi square,
murderer of 38 civilians including 13 children
Editing versus Censorship
Every media outlet edits their news stories. Papers constantly select only those parts of interviews that confirm a thesis it promotes to its readers. That is (theoretically) its right. Michael Moore edited interviews about global warming and the auto industry to convey a particular narrative that he wanted to portray in his movies. The public may ultimately view the half-stories they receive as accurate, half-accurate or completely inaccurate because of the known bias of the producers of the content.
However, no one considers editing to be a form of censorship or an infringement on the freedom of speech or press. If a paper opted to not publish a sports section, that is its right. If it crops a picture to focus on a particular image to reinforce its narrative, that is also its right. It may be bad journalism, but it is not censorship (and certainly not by a governmental authority).
In its ramble on free speech above, the New York Times highlighted the Israeli “conservative” newspaper Hamevaser’s choice to edit the picture of the Paris unity march to remove the female leaders. Hamevaser is run by and serves an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community (not politically conservative) that is against showing pictures of women due to their interpretation of modesty. Such action is a form of editing that newspapers engage in to meet the tastes of its readership. To somehow suggest that it is a form of Israeli censorship is absurd. Why would the Times possibly lump this example in with examples of freedom of speech and hate speech? It is completely off topic.
People in the western world rallied behind Charlie Hebdo because they see this situation as falling completely within the framework of free speech: it poked fun at a religion (a concept), not people (Muslims); and it did not call for any violence, rather the attacks came from a reaction from incensed Muslims. The case of M’bala M’bala has to do with inciting violence against people, and the Hamevaser picture has nothing at all to do with government censorship.
So how did the Times develop this list of irrelevant examples and not try to educate its readers (and actually confuse them with calling out “double standards”)?
- Are the editors and journalists themselves confused or are they trying to confuse the paper’s readership?
- Is the Times arguing that calls for murdering Jews should be protected free speech?
- Is it trying to draw an equivalency between radical Islam and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism?
- Is it trying to imply that Israel does not have freedom of the press?
- All of the above?
NYtimes articles and picture Jan 14: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/14/world/europe/new-charlie-hebdo-has-muhammad-cartoon.html
Louis Farakhan on Judaism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbrH3eUuA3U
Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi calling Jews names: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JukaOi8pKzM
UN Resolution 16/18: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/16session/A.HRC.RES.16.18_en.pdf
German imam calling for killing Jews: http://forward.com/articles/202751/germany-warns-against-hate-speech-after-imam-calls/
PA Abbas praise for terrorists: http://www.algemeiner.com/2013/01/10/video-of-abbas-praising-hitler-supporting-mufti-terrorists-released-video/
Naming square and centers after terrorist who killed 37 civilians: http://www.palwatch.org/pages/news_archive.aspx?doc_id=1442
Related First One Through articles:
Blasphemy or terrorism: https://firstonethrough.wordpress.com/2015/01/12/blasphemy-or-terrorism/