Charlie Hebdo, the free press and racism
How do we put in perspective the international media focus on the massacre of 12 journalists in Paris on Jan. 7 at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, notorious for its racist anti-Muslim caricatures and lack of response to the routine, daily, racist police murders of Black youth in the U.S.? Why were any protests banned in France of 15 journalists who were killed among the 2,000 deaths in the Israeli assault of Gaza this past summer? Don’t those lives matter?
The Charlie Hebdo assassinations strengthen the hand of the state, which is using them in an ideological offensive, even if the state had a role in arming and training the killers.
Why are other murders not mourned, not respected, not even reported — even the murders of other journalists? A crucial role of the corporate media is to try to shape the perception of which lives matter.
Consider the mass outpourings following several different, very public killings in the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of youths have been in the streets again and again in the U.S. confronting the refusal of the state to prosecute killer cops, even when their murderous crimes have been seen on video by millions.
Hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets of Paris on Jan. 11. French, other European, U.S. and Israeli politicians led the march honoring the slain journalists.
Twice, on Dec. 27 and Jan. 4, thousands of police in uniform from all over the U.S. converged on New York City for separate funerals of two police officers shot in their patrol car in Dec. 20. Jet Blue offered free flights to all police traveling nationally to the funeral. The U.S. vice president, New York state’s governor and the city’s mayor attended the funerals. Roads in the areas were closed; giant outdoor TV screens were erected.
Not a free speech issue
The French government’s protection of the racist journal Charlie Hebdo had nothing to do with protecting freedom of speech. This is a deception that must be confronted. In 2012 the same government that protected this vile publication banned any demonstrations or protests or even public prayers opposing the racist publication.
French law allows for the prosecution of “public insults” based on religion, race, ethnicity or national origin. But the racist, sexist, bigoted, grossly insulting cartoons in Charlie Hebdo magazine were never once a source of any successful legal action.
However, France did ban anyone from even protesting the cartoons that insulted Muslims or the prophet Muhammed.
In 2012, as protests swept the Muslim world in response to an anti-Muslim film made in the U.S., French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said prefects had orders to prohibit any protest and to crack down if the ban was challenged. “There will be strictly no exceptions. Demonstrations will be banned and broken up.” (Daily Mail, Sept. 21, 2012) Even prayer meetings and street prayers were banned. (CNN, Sept. 19, 2012)
In the same week Charlie Hebdo put out an extra run of cartoons featuring a grossly obscene caricature of a naked prophet Mohammed. The magazine was given extra police protection.
Freedom of speech and of the press is hardly sacred in France. It was punishable by a year in prison to even post on the Internet a notice of a demonstration opposing the Israeli onslaught on Palestine during the Israeli 2014 summer offensive on Gaza. France was the only country in the world to bar all demonstrations and protests in any form supporting Palestine during that time. The penalty was one year in jail and 15,000 euro fine.
It is worth noting the double standard: There is no similar crackdown against the current right-wing, fascist demonstrations against immigrants.
Role of Nazi caricature
Charlie Hebdo serves a very important purpose for French imperialism, and that is why its virulent racism has been protected at the very time that protests against it are prohibited.
Charlie Hebdo may have run cartoons to ridicule the powerful 40 years ago when it claimed to be left wing, irreverent and nonconformist. But there is a big difference between satire ridiculing the powerful — a French tradition going back to Voltaire — and the current imagery promoting fear and loathing of the oppressed and powerless. The latter is right wing and fascist in character.
In this period when Muslims are facing increasing, extreme right-wing attacks, and fascist mobilizations are growing in Europe, Charlie Hebdo functions as did the Nazi publication Der Sturmer with its vehemently anti-Semitic caricatures. Jewish people in Der Sturmer, as Muslims in Charlie Hebdo, were depicted with exaggerated facial features and misshapen bodies. Both publications use obscene, sexually explicit caricatures.
The Nazi newspaper’s caricatures were part of a policy to make Jews an object of hatred, fear, ridicule and disdain. At the end of World War II, Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Sturmer — though he didn’t run death camps but used the press to incite hatred — was put on trial, convicted of crimes against humanity and executed.
Charlie Hebdo is protected because it hardens the population against Muslim people in order to divide the population. The French government has announced a grant to Charlie Hebdo of 1 million euros, and Google donated 250,000 euros.
Charlie Hebdo is not freedom of expression and freedom of press. It is an instrument of war mobilization. It ran cartoons demonizing Serbs during the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia, and it supported NATO’s attack on Libya.
No free press
Although “free speech” and “free press” are being lauded and glorified in the murder of the French journalists, no such thing exists in any capitalist state. The press in France or in the U.S. is not free, open or accessible. The media are owned by and serve the interests of the ruling class. What can be said and who can say it is tightly controlled. The corporate media in capitalist society are owned to serve class rule. What is covered depends entirely on who can pay for publication or airtime. A handful of multibillion-dollar media conglomerates control almost all information, culture and entertainment in the Western capitalist countries — though in the past decade social media and the Internet have opened a few cracks in this overwhelming corporate control.
The media industry has an enormous impact in shaping what lives have value and what deaths go unreported, unmarked or consciously covered up.
The hundreds of thousands of deaths in wars initiated by U.S. imperialism, and with full support of French and British imperialism, are unmarked, unmourned and callously labeled “collateral damage.” The media ignore or barely mention the enormous toll in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. No mass sympathy is created when a U.S. drone wipes out a wedding party in Pakistan or a whole village with a hellfire missile.
The assassinations of journalists in these wars are hardly noted. There were no state funerals for the 166 journalists killed in Iraq under U.S. occupation. Chelsea Manning is in prison for releasing videos of U.S. helicopters gunning down two Reuter’s camera operators in Iraq and then circling to kill the family that stopped their van to try to help them.
According to The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms, 15 journalists were killed in the 2014 Israeli bombing of Gaza. They “were killed in civilian sites which are supposed to be safe for civilians.” Eight media centers were targeted and bombed.
U.S. bombers targeted and destroyed the RTS, Radio TV Serbia, in the 1999 U.S./NATO war on Yugoslavia, killing 17 journalists.
The most dangerous country in the world for journalists is Honduras. Since the U.S.-backed coup, 46 media and information workers have been assassinated.
The International Federation of Journalists sharply criticized NATO 2011 air strikes against Libyan television, which killed three people and injured 15. The IFJ stated that the strikes violated international law and U.N. resolutions.
If a free press existed, then Chelsea Manning would not be in prison or Edward Snowden and Julian Assange on the run, living in exile.
What media are even allowed coverage in imperialist countries demonstrates how little freedom of the press is respected. For example, PRESS TV, an Iranian news channel broadcasting in English, is banned from broadcasting via satellite throughout Europe, Canada and the U.S. Al-Manar, a Lebanese satellite station affiliated with Hezbollah, has also been banned by France, Germany and the U.S. Both Press TV and Al Manar have protested, to no avail, that this is a grave breach of freedom of speech. While both news channels are available via the Internet in limited form, Apple and Google have removed Al-Manar mobile apps.
National oppression and racism in France cannot be ignored. There are 5.5 million residents of African origin, many of them born in France and most of them citizens. A large number are from Muslim background, although not all are practicing. They are isolated by poverty in suburbs that have high unemployment, inferior schools and substandard housing.
Just as prisons in the U.S. overwhelmingly imprison Black and Brown youth, so too do French prisons. About 60 to 70 percent of all inmates in the country’s prison system are Muslim, according to Muslim leaders, sociologists and researchers, though Muslims make up only about 12 percent of the country’s population. (Washington Post Foreign Service, April 29, 2008)
Imperialism needs hatred of targeted peoples. Western politicians have cynically used Islamophobia to advance right-wing political agendas and curtail freedoms.
Regardless of whether a police conspiracy is ever exposed, we do know that the French ruling class and the corporate media are always primed to take full advantage of such acts to reinforce the repressive state apparatus and sow division among the working class.
There should not be an iota of confidence in the news stories of this massacre at Charlie Hebdo. We know only what we are being told in the corporate media by French military police and state intelligence agencies. We do know that three men, who are now dead, were tools of imperialism in their wars of conquest in Syria and Libya. More than 1,000 French citizens of Arab and North African descent have been recruited, trained, armed and used as weapons conduits, saboteurs and terrorists in the efforts of U.S. France, Britain, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to overthrow the government of Syria.
This leads to the fundamental question of whose policies are responsible for the massacre and who gains from the massacre?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism, aided by the old colonial powers of Europe, has been engaged in a whole series of wars to reconquer countries that had achieved a high level of development based on sovereignty and control of their resources.
In their frantic efforts to recolonize Iraq, Syria and Libya, they have cynically whipped up sectarian divisions, organized deadly militias and promoted fanaticism and anarchy. That has aroused deep-seated rage against the U.S., France and Britain.
It is also highly unpopular that French imperialism is widely involved in Africa, primarily in the majority-Muslim countries of Mali, Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast and Djibouti, and in Abu Dhabi on the Arabian peninsula.
The French ruling class wants to divert mass attention from their expanding wars and increasingly militarized society. The mobilizations claiming to defend a free press by defending racism must be opposed and countered.