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The onus of risk analysis is on editors

The Paris terror attack reminds us that there is a higher purpose than defending legal rights as absolute

ht view Updated: Jan 08, 2015 21:22 IST

The killing of journalists working for the satirical Charlie Hebdo by Islamist gunmen in Paris brings into focus an uneasy mix of several factors — religious extremism, failing integration of immigrants and confusion over freedom of expression. The killings exposed the pent-up contradictions of society and politics. For years now, a tit-for-tat hostility has been brewing between France’s militant Muslim youth, who lead hopeless lives in banlieues (suburbs), and the mainstream citizenry. Unemployed and discriminated against owing to self-ghettoisation reinforced by Islamophobic fears in France, these youth have engaged in rioting since the 1980s.

Successive French governments have persisted with a failed policy of ‘assimilation’ that requires migrants to adopt French culture and values. In contrast to the concept of multiculturalism, where minorities are permitted to follow their customs, France has banned Muslim women from wearing headscarves. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy even advised Muslims to “practise their religion in humble discretion” and avoid challenging France’s Christian heritage.

Like in the rest of Europe, French governments have had to pander to a rising tide of anti-immigration and anti-Islamic political movements. The far-Right French National Front party recently won a slew of local polls, Senate seats and even secured a large voting bloc in the European Parliament.

Is the Islamophobia of an increasing number of white French people the cause of radicalism emerging from the banlieues, or is it the other way around? What is obvious from the Charlie Hebdo case is that France, and much of Europe, are witnessing social polarisation fanned by al Qaeda and the Islamic State on one hand, and by racist and reductionist hatred of Islam-baiters like the National Front and Denmark’s People’s Party on the other.

Caught in this clash of fundamentalism is the media, which is protective of its freedoms in Europe. Charlie Hebdo was targeted by terrorists because it had carried caricatures of the Prophet. The ‘revenge’ attack on this publication mirrors similar violence mounted by Islamists on Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in 2010 and on the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004.

Ironically, Charlie Hebdo is a bastion of Left-wing thought with a penchant for skewering racists, war-mongers and religious conservatives. One of the cartoonists slain by the terrorists, Bernard Verlhac, was a member of an artistic movement called ‘Cartoonists for Peace’. By no means can Charlie Hebdo be bracketed along with Right-wing Islamophobes.

The attack will restart the debate on media freedom. Where does creativity and self-expression end and insults begin? Should social or legal censorship restrict art that is objected to by some sections of society? When Charlie Hebdo published cartoons poking fun at Islam in 2012, the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius defended French Republican values of a free media but asked pertinently: “Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?”

The free speech dilemma needs to be threshed out on the level of whether the media ought to monitor itself keeping in mind the potentially harmful consequences its words or pictures might generate in the real world of social cleavages. The onus should be on editors and publishers to do risk analysis of the potential fallouts of their content, particularly when it involves inflaming religious or sectarian sentiments.

In India, we are experiencing a learning curve on striking a fine balance between artistic urges and social pressures. Terror on the streets of Paris reminds us that there is a higher purpose than defending legal rights as absolute: To judiciously save lives and preserve social harmony.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs

The views expressed by the author are personal