Charlie Hebdo: How Journalism Needs to Respond to This Unconscionable attack
By Aidan White /

The attack on Charlie Hebdo is the worst case of targeted killings of journalists ever recorded in Europe and is matched only by the massacre five years ago of 32 journalists and other media workers, by 100 armed men who attacked an election convoy in Mindanao in the Philippines.

But the Paris event is not an isolated incident of political barbarism. It is part of a continuing ideological struggle that began almost ten years ago when the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, sparking a global debate over the balancing of religious sensitivities and the right to free expression.

Among the victims at Charlie Hebdo are, cruelly and tragically, the most talented of the magazine’s cartoonists, the men whose work has helped make this satirical title an iconic symbol of dissidence with its impertinent disregard for the social conventions of the French political elite. But poking fun at western politics, where free speech includes the right to be offensive, even insulting, is far less dangerous than challenging the authority of ideology based upon fanatical attachment to religious dogma.

When the Mohammed cartoons crisis broke out in January 2006 (they were first published in Denmark in September 2005), western media were divided on how to respond. Some republished the cartoons, to show solidarity in the face of a backlash involving Muslim extremists against Danish journalists. Some editors felt to do so would be insensitive to Muslim readers—but many more succumbed to self-censorship, amid widespread threats of violence.


Charlie Hebdo is a voice of uncompromising opposition to censorship in any form. It had already had a taste of what that can mean when dealing with religious extremists. In 2011 its offices were firebombed after it announced its intention to have a special issue with the Prophet Mohammed as guest ‘editor-in-chief’.

Thankfully no one was killed. But the warning was clear. Many at the time were nervous about the stance being taken. Wasn’t the magazine being unnecessarily provocative? There were fears that it was attention-seeking rather than promoting a debate about the need for free speech.

All of that is put into a fresh perspective by this latest attack. The slaughter of journalists in their own newsroom is unconscionable and intolerable and can never be excused.

The attack also highlights just how vulnerable journalists and other media staff can be when they actively defend free speech against corruption and violent extremism in all its forms. In 2014 many journalists were targeted and killed—according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 died; according to Reports Without Borders, the toll is 66. Even if the detail is unclear, journalism remains a high-risk business, with reporters and editors routinely threatened and subject to violence for exposing crime, corruption and political malpractice.

Hate speech

This appalling event on the streets of Paris will inevitably spark a new debate about free speech and religious intolerance and we can expect more hate-speech—particularly from the right of European politics—aiming to make political capital out of understandable public anger and outrage. But journalists must know better than to give voice to fresh acts of hatred and particularly Islamophobia. The story of the Paris atrocity and its origins as it unfolds over the coming days needs to be handled with sensitivity and care, and journalists must do everything they can to lower the temperature and avoid providing cover for abusive treatment or acts of discrimination against members of Muslim communities.

'Charb', editor of the magazine

The magazine editor, 'Charb', was among the dead. Demotix / infosart. All rights reserved

This is a time for ‘slow’ journalism, when everyone in media—and even those would-be journalists outside the newsroom—needs to think carefully about the consequences of what they write and the images they show. Within minutes of the Paris shootings, a video was being circulated online showing the point-blank execution of a police officer. It should never have been shown and never shared.

The colleagues who died at Charlie Hebdo were not champions of violence or hatred. Indeed, the magazine has always used its creative power in words and images to show that politics can and should be fought on a level platform, in which respect for pluralism means that all opinions—even those with which one strongly disagrees—have the right to be heard. And no one, least of all those who trade in murder and inhumanity, has a right to say otherwise.

About the author

Aidan White is the founding director of theEthical Journalism Network, an international coalition of media professional groups campaigning to strengthen the craft of journalism. He launched the network in 2012 after 24 years as general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists. Its programme this year includes support for journalists in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and two multi-country investigations, on corruption in journalism and the effectiveness of media self-regulation

4.3 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 12,524 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 3,168 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 3,027 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Mark Corske's Engines of Domination (2014)
60 min · 2,849 views today · Political power -- armed central authority, with states and war -- is it part of human nature? Is it necessary for human communities? Or is it a tool that ruling elites use to...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 2,221 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 1,558 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,539 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Gil Scott-Heron Deconstructs Colonialism and Black History in His Own Unique Style
3 min · 1,142 views today · His-Story: I was wondering about our yesterdays, and starting searching through the rubble and to say the very least, somebody went to a hell of a lot of trouble to make sure...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 1,021 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 919 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 900 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 826 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 547 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Planet Earth II Could Be Best Nature Doc Ever Made
3 min · 494 views today · 10 years ago Planet Earth changed our view of the world. Now we take you closer than ever before. This is life in all its wonder. This is Planet Earth II. A decade ago, the...
Anarchists - What We Stand For
unknown · 472 views today · Anarchism : The word “anarchy” comes from Greek and means “no rulers”. As a political philosophy, anarchism is based on the idea that organization does not require rulers—that...
For Those Who Don't Want to Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils
Peter White · 393 views today · Ranked-choice voting is catching on, and Maine might become the first state to help citizens vote for candidates they actually want.
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 380 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Are You Lost in the World Like Me?
3 min · 293 views today · Animated film by Steve Cutts for 'Are You Lost In The World Like Me?', taken from These Systems Are Failing- the debut album from Moby & The Void Pacific Choir. 
The Revenge of the Lower Classes and the Rise of American Fascism
Chris Hedges · 277 views today · College-educated elites, on behalf of corporations, carried out the savage neoliberal assault on the working poor. Now they are being made to pay. Their duplicity—embodied in...
Eckhart Tolle: Your Facebook Ego, That's Not Who You Are
2 min · 263 views today · “Identification with thoughts and the emotions that go with those thoughts creates a false mind-made sense of self, conditioned by the past: the "little me" and its story. This...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Charlie Hebdo: How Journalism Needs to Respond to This Unconscionable attack