The deadly attacks Wednesday on the Paris headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has sparked a debate among political cartoonists around the world about the boundaries of free speech and the wisdom of needlessly provoking indignation. At the same time, the killing of four cartoonists, among the 12 shot dead by gunmen, has only hardened the resolve of some cartoonists to continue to push for freedom of expression through their work, regardless of their views on Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons.
The attack on the magazine, which gained worldwide attention for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, has provoked shock and outrage among cartoonists, though it has not dissuaded many from working on controversial subjects, said Ruben L. Oppenheimer, a Dutch political cartoonist for the Belgian newspaper De Standaard. “This attack does not take away any of my determination to do, as good as possible, my job, which is to make cartoons,” he said. “My response to these things is to make a cartoon about it.”
The irreverent brand of political cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo had inspired many threats and violence in the past, notably in 2011 when its offices in Paris were firebombed. Wednesday’s attack was called an act of terrorism by French President François Hollande. Six of the magazine’s staff members were killed in the attack, including editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier.
Despite the devastating reminder of the dangers of the profession, cartoonists said they are not deterred and that their role in promoting freedom of expression is more important than ever. “I don't say that I'm pretending to be courageous or anything,” said Ann Telnaes, an editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post. “Freedom of expression, to me, has to be pretty absolute.” Telnaes said the French magazine’s work could be “provocative,” but defending their freedom to do such art was necessary, regardless of a cartoonist’s personal feelings about it.
“We shouldn't be afraid,” said Christian Adams, a political cartoonist for the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph. “I think in the end it's probably nothing really to do with cartoons. The cartoons are just an excuse to create havoc, murder and war.”
Indeed, because cartoonists are seen by extremists as “soft targets” that end up being easy prey against the backdrop of greater political conflicts, said Oppenheimer. “These are very cowardly attacks. If they were really brave, they would attack the president’s office,” he said.
Terrorists may also feel threatened by cartoonists for their role in exposing their hypocrisy, said Satish Acharya, an Indian political cartoonist. “The truth is they are not trying to protect their religion; they are scared because cartoonists, artists writers expose their fake war.” However, the cartoonist’s role to hold the powerful to account does not mean that they should be needlessly provocative, argued Acharya. “You need to be responsible. You can't provoke people. There are certain things that could lead to violence and death. It's up to the cartoonist to draw the boundary.”
— Satish Acharya (@satishacharya) January 7, 2015
In India, religion and caste status are two of the most sensitive subjects, and Acharya said that cartoonists and journalists often self-censor in order to avoid needlessly provoking violent responses to these sensitive subjects. This is an important consideration in multicultural societies like India, he said. This form of self-censorship also exists in Britain even amid the “gratuitous” insults against politicians by cartoonists, said Adams. “There's a grey area between offending without a reason and using satire with good reason,” he said. “It's very difficult to balance, but I think journalists have to censor themselves and know what is reasonably offensive.”
— Adam Nathan (@eubetter) January 8, 2015
Determining what is unreasonably offensive comes down to the intent of the cartoonist, said Magnus Shaw, a U.K.-based writer and blogger, whose political cartoon featuring the solidarity slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) over an illustration of Charlie Brown went viral on social media in the wake of the attack. “We should all expect to be offended at some point because that is the price of freedom of speech,” he said. “But if you set out to inflame just for its own sake, that's really quite boring and doesn't result in interesting work, and people are smart enough to know the difference.” The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were “sailing close to the wind,” said Shaw, but they were doing so in order to express what they felt and believed and “therefore their efforts were valid.”
— Magnus Shaw (@TheMagnusShaw) January 7, 2015
Regardless of political and aesthetic differences with the magazine, the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices has helped clarify what cartoonists’ mission really is, said Signe Wilkinson, an editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News. “People always ask me 'What's the line? Where's the line? Aren't you afraid of crossing the line?' I respond, ‘what crosses the line? Someone just blew dozens of people up in Yemen. That's horrifying,’” she said. “Cartoons hold people responsible.”
But it is still important for cartoonists not to go for the "low-hanging fruit," said Joel Pett, an editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Kentucky.com and the president of the board of the U.S.-based Cartoonists Rights Network International, an advocacy organization for cartoonists around the world. "If you're going to provoke for a living, at least provoke the right people for the right reasons," he said
The attacks are also an opportunity to remind people of the important work that cartoonists do, especially amid a changing media climate that has seen dwindling cartoonist jobs at newspapers, many of which in the U.S. no longer use cartoonists, according to Pett. This is one of the few positive results of the tragic attack, said Telnaes. “Hopefully it will show publishers and editors that editorial cartoons are a very important part of the political discourse.”