This column by Scottish PEN’s president Drew Campbell appeared in The National on the 8th of January 2015. Find a digital edition here: http://www.thenational.scot/ and find them on Twitter at @ScotNational Liberty or death? As I suspect many people were when they heard of the murders in Paris yesterday the news was so shocking, so horrifying I was almost at […]January 12, 2015
This column by Scottish PEN’s president Drew Campbell appeared in The National on the 8th of January 2015. Find a digital edition here: http://www.thenational.scot/ and find them on Twitter at @ScotNational
As I suspect many people were when they heard of the murders in Paris yesterday the news was so shocking, so horrifying I was almost at a loss for words – which is, of course, exactly the response the perpetrators crave. But today I want to speak up. Today I want to encourage you, everyone, to speak up for free speech.
Scottish PEN is one of 147 centres of PEN International, a worldwide association of writers, editors, translators and journalists which works to promote and defend freedom of expression right across the globe. Some of the governments and public figures who will condemn this attack are themselves guilty of heinous crimes against humanity, of suppressing human rights and freedom of expression, and PEN campaigns against such actions by all and any of them, from the US to Saudi Arabia, Israel to Indonesia, the UK to Russia – any regime, any cult, any political group, without fear or favour. Sadly, we’ve never been busier. At the end of 2014, the Centre for Protection of Journalists reported international journalists were killed at a higher rate than any time this century. It is not just Islamic State either; they also noted the majority of those under threat are local journalists working in their own countries.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre of cartoonists was an extreme example of this as well as being at the extreme end of another trend – anger at cultural expression. 2014 was the year anger at an anti-slavery exhibition / performance art called ‘Exhibit B’ forced the cancellation of Brett Bailey’s controversial piece – in London, one of the world’s great cultural capitals. 2014 was the year protests about The City, an opera from a Jerusalem-based theatre company, shut down performances of the show. That was in Scotland, at our very own Edinburgh Fringe.
The right to protest is, of course, fundamental to freedom of expression. South African novelist and PEN activist Margie Orford explored this very point at an event Scottish PEN hosted at last year’s Aye Write Festival, discussing the South African response to a controversial portrait of their President Jacob Zuma. An ANC-organised protest threatened to shut down the exhibition but instead an overwhelming public rally supporting the artists’ right to freedom of expression generated a healthy discussion of the themes raised by the work, which depicted Zuma nude exposing both his corruption and vulnerability.
It takes genuine courage to speak truth to power, and sometimes even more guts to take such a visible public stance and poke fun at it. The Charlie Hebdo magazine and its variations have been doing just that for over fifty years on and off, through countless malicious libel actions and, in 1971, an outright ban by the then French Government.
In 2005, like countless PEN members across the world, they stood in solidarity with the Danish cartoonists at the JP newspaper despite being diametrically opposed to that publication’s right-wing political stance. Charlie Hebdo, indeed, went further with its 2011 special ‘Charia Hebdo’ issue claiming to be ‘guest-edited’ by the Prophet Mohammed with the quote, ‘100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing.’ The evening before publication its offices were firebombed and its website hacked. At the time many in French society called for the magazine to show restraint and not to further inflame Islamic extremists:
‘I am against all provocations, especially during a period as sensitive as this one,’ said then French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius. ‘I do not see any usefulness in such provocation. There must be freedom of speech, but I am absolutely opposed to any provocation.’
Free speech without provocation? That will be in the great French tradition of songs without words, dance without sexuality, food without spice then.
Or maybe he was right: Did the Charlie Hebdo cartoons go ‘too far’? Maybe they were tasteless, puerile, maybe even not that funny. Or maybe not. Why not seek them out online and see for yourself. That’s a wee act of in support of freedom itself.
So today I hope you’ll do something for freedom of expression. And if you do feel moved to express your feelings maybe think about those who’ll use this outrage to vent hatred against Moslems, and think how these murderers prey on ignorance and want your hate almost as much as they want your fear. How they want you to react against them and call them ‘Islam’ to empower the illusion they are its true leaders, its most faithful adherents. That is a lie, and the cause of free expression – what the workers at Charlie Hebdo risked their lives for – can never be served by burying the truth under lies, or ignorance or fear or hate. And especially not silence.
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