Home > 20 (3), 3

Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and Counter-Speech

by Simon Dawes
Université Paul Valéry - Montpellier, France

Sociological Research Online, 20 (3), 3
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3765

Received: 2 Mar 2015 | Accepted: 23 Jul 2015 | Published: 31 Aug 2015


This brief rapid response article considers the French media framing of the Charlie Hebdo attack in terms of 'Republican values' such as free speech, and critiques the post-political and moralistic reduction of debate to 'right and wrong' arguments, as well as the fetishisation of the right to offend and the depoliticisation of the right to be offended.

Keywords: Charlie Hebdo, Counter-Speech, Free Press, Free Speech, France, Post-Politics


1.1 In the immediate response to the targeting of the cartoonists and editorial staff of controversial and financially struggling Charlie Hebdo on 7th January, 2015, the public, political and mediatic show of solidarity with the magazine was overwhelming. Although there were subsequently also police and Jewish targets, the initial narrative of the attacks as an assault on free speech proved remarkably tenacious. In both French and UK/US media, the framing of this event in terms of the importance of (and limits to) free speech, the privileging of the freedom of the press, and the foregrounding of the editorial decision-making process (around the question of whether or not to republish images of Muhammad), created a relatively rare occasion of metajournalism; journalism on journalism. It also provided a revealing insight into the differences between French and Anglo-Saxon media.

1.2 In France, the media coverage (in both old and new media) in the wake of the attacks was remarkable, not only for the unconditional and unprecedented show of solidarity with the satirical magazine and the united efforts to ensure its continued existence, but for the readiness to flaunt the right to offend and to republish the controversial images in a defence of an absolutist interpretation and fetishism of free speech. This was in stark contrast to immediate reactions to previous (less tragic) attacks against the magazine, which had been more varied in the way that debate over content and the limits of free speech accompanied the defence of press freedom and of journalists against physical attack (see Mercier 2015 for a brief overview of French media coverage of Charlie Hebdo over the past few years).

1.3 The coverage by the Anglo-Saxon media was from the start, in contrast, less unanimous, more critical, and more reflexive about the limits to the rights and responsibilities of the press. In response, many French media outlets were more than critical of the 'cowardice' of some Anglo-Saxon media for even hesitating to republish, nevermind deciding to censor or cut the images (see Dawes 2015a and 2015b for earlier interventions on this topic).

1.4 While there are other, arguably more pertinent, ways to approach this episode - such as the history of French and Western colonialism and intervention into Africa and the Middle East, the integration of Muslim immigrants into French society, etc. - this rapid response article focuses on its initial media framing in terms of the rhetoric of free speech in both the republican and liberal media contexts. In particular, the article argues not only that the French media focus on rights ignored the responsibility of the press, but that the fetishisation of free speech was also contradictory, in that while reason, republican values and some forms of speech were sacralised, on the one hand, offence, cultural differences and counter-speech were excluded on the other.

French & Anglo-Saxon State-Media Relations

2.1 While the French media were obviously a lot less removed from the dramatic events - being personally and institutionally close to the targeted magazine and its staff, as well as occasional targets of similar attacks themselves (Lichfield 2013) - there is another reason for differences in the media framing and representation of this affair. Although national media don't constitute a single 'system' as such, being composed rather of overlapping and inconsistent cultures and characteristics (McQuail 1994: 133), and although there are also significant differences between US and UK media environments, a clear distinction between French and Anglo-Saxon media systems was highlighted by the media coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack and its immediate aftermath. According to Hallin & Mancini's (2004) empirically grounded models of media and political systems, French media is a mixture of the polarized pluralist and democratic corporatist models, combining an active role for the state and the strong influence of party politics with a limited role for the market logics and commercial media of the Anglo-Saxon model. Within the mainstream liberal tradition of the latter, freedom (of the press) is seen in terms of negative liberty and freedom from any political interference, whereas, in classical republicanism, only arbitrary policy interventions are seen as threats to freedom (Lovett 2014).

2.2 While both media systems can claim to have a free press, therefore, press freedom is perhaps better understood as a spectrum (of extents of freedom) and as a very subjective term. For instance, whereas the liberal interpretation of press freedom as freedom from the state has tended to mean that Anglo-Saxon journalists are particularly hostile to any form of regulation, French journalists have tended to be more concerned with defending their unfettered right to free expression than with issues of political influence. However, the problem with the liberal tendency is that it ignores market and corporate power - so that newspapers' attempts to hold political power to account are undermined by the private power of their proprietors (Dawes 2014). Likewise, the problem with republicanism is that it tends to excuse state or even government intervention, consequently restricting journalists' ability to hold political authorities to account (indirectly promoting the withholding of information and self-censorship, and limiting the exposure of political corruption), and potentially rendering impotent their freedom of expression (Index on Censorship 2013).

2.3 The relationship between the state and the media in France is historically close (Benson & Powers 2011), demonstrated by the particularly intimate relationships between elite (normally male) politicians and (normally female) political journalists, the norms and values prevalent in deferential French journalistic culture, the lack of a tabloid press and the particularity of various legal provisions, such as the protection of privacy over the freedom of the press (Kuhn 2014). In the UK, by contrast, the tabloid journalist claim that 'privacy is for paedos' (see Sabbagh 2011) articulately sums up their justification for violating the private lives of public (and not so public) figures, and their not so occasional resort to illegal techniques to do so, while their recourse to an interchangeable rhetoric of 'press freedom' and 'free speech' is used to warn off parliamentary and judiciary threats of regulation. In France, however, privacy is considered off limits; particularly that of prominent public figures, as fines for defamation increase if the injured party is a public official. The violation of privacy by the press is met with disapproving comments on the encroaching tabloidization of French media and the personalisation of French politics (Fourny 2014), while it is also aggressively protected by both civil law and criminal law proceedings with limited public interest defences (Index on Censorship 2013). In France, when press freedom has to be balanced in courts with other rights, such as privacy, it nearly always loses; in the UK or the US, it nearly always wins (Dawes 2013).

2.4 It is not all that surprising, therefore, that the way in which the media reacted to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, as well as the way in which freedom of the press and freedom of expression were interpreted by the media and by politicians, was so different in each system.

Laïcité and Republican Values

3.1 As colleagues and friends had just been assassinated in retaliation for the content they'd produced, it is of course understandable that the rest of French media should feel not only solidarity with the victims, but potentially under threat themselves. The continuation of the magazine was assured by the financial support and resources of (old and new, public and commercial) media (see, for example, Gallet et al. 2015; Joffrin 2015), united to defend the principles of 'independence, freedom of thought and freedom of expression', as well as by government aid (Debouté 2015). The march through Paris, ostensibly 'open to all', was made in the name of unity, or the Republic, with an emphasis on the 'Republican' values of free speech and religious tolerance. The march was attended, however, by world leaders with dubious records on these values (see Le Monde 2015) - consequently alienating some of their critics from also participating in the show of unity (Bantigny et al. 2015). At the same time, the increasingly popular Front National, commonly dismissed by other parties as a party that does 'not share republican values' (Riché 2015), reportedly felt excluded from official proceedings.

3.2 As if these cracks in the rhetorical veneer of unity weren't enough, there were also those that criticised the content of Charlie Hebdo or the international republication of its cartoons of Muhammad, as well as those who refused to say 'Je Suis Charlie', to attend one of the rallies or to respect the minute's silence for the victims. Those adopting such positions were accused of not sharing republican values, such as the freedom of expression - and were, in many cases, arrested.

3.3 On the other hand, others were quick to critique the harsh (and contradictory) crackdown on free speech in the aftermath of the attacks (Chrisafis 2015), as well as the more profound sacralisation of laïcité and widespread stigmatisation of Islam in France. In a political and cultural environment that conflates communitarianism with racism (Van Eeckhout 2010), and that has been growing more and more hostile toward Islam (Cesari in Editors 2015), laïcité and republican values have been transformed into a 'performative ritual' that does not recognise cultural differences, and used as a justification to scrutinize and interfere with the bodies, sensibilities and practices of (particularly women) Muslim citizens (Barras in Editors 2015). Laïc 'prejudices' about religion as a threat to the Republic have perhaps, furthermore, informed the view that caricaturing Muhammad is not only fair game, but in some ways a stand against power, rather than the stigmatization of an already disadvantaged minority (Taylor in Editors 2015), which may be exacerbated by martyrizing the Charlie Hebdo victims as symbols of Republican freedom.

3.4 In contrast, rather than the Republican framing of the attack and subsequent debate in terms of free speech and laïcité, some have argued for the need, in an increasingly multicultural society, to 'fit into each other's frames' (Bangstad in Editors 2015). Such an effort would necessitate the acknowledgment, recognition and representation of those that find the content of Charlie Hebdo offensive, and that struggle or refuse to express their horror at a terrorist attack in terms of solidarity with a publication they have long despised, rather than dismissing such views as contrary to Republican values. It would necessitate, that is, not only a less contradictory defence of free speech, but also the defence of counter-speech, as well as the recognition of cultural difference within the secular Republic.

Free Speech and Counter-Speech

4.1 The show of republican solidarity with Charlie as epitome of free speech is, of course, with a very specific aspect of free speech. It is with the right to offend - or, even more specifically, the right to blaspheme - a right which the French secular republic, with its self-proclaimed, long tradition of anti-clericalist satire, holds particularly dear, but which is in everyday conflict with the values of what is now the Republic's second largest religion. French politicians and journalists were quick to distinguish between racism and blasphemy, and to uphold the right to blaspheme, although not to spread hate against a particular race; and, it is worth noting, France's hate speech laws are so notoriously stringent that they have been interpreted by some as the right not to be offended or criticised (Index on Censorship 2013). This is why the censorship (in 2014) and arrest (a week after the Charlie Hebdo attacks) of controversial comedian Dieudonné is defended by many, especially the French Prime Minister, as not equivalent to a restriction of free speech (Gourmelet 2015).

4.2 To say 'Je Suis Charlie', therefore, means not necessarily to approve of the content of the magazine, or to find it funny, and certainly not to condone racism or hate speech, but to stand up for the right to blaspheme in a secular and democratic republic. However, the refusal of some to show their solidarity - by saying, for instance, 'Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie' (Hayes 2015) - was criticised by politicians and the mainstream media in France (as well as by friends and followers on social media) as either a rejection of such republican values or ignorance of French culture and humour.

4.3 There is a clear double standard, here, in the way in which freedom of speech was framed. Rather than tolerating all speech, the disrespectful speech of the Charlie Hebdo journalists was not only tolerated, but sacralized, whereas the disrespectful speech of others was not tolerated at all, and even criminalized (Laborde in Editors 2015). While the right to offend and flaunt the right to free speech was protected, the right to be offended, and to have the offence recognized through counter-speech (Temperman in Editors 2015) - which may involve arguments for limits to free speech, as well as accompanying responsibilities - was not.

4.4 And when it is assumed that no "rational" person could object to a 'universal value' such as free speech (Amesbury in Editors 2015), the privileging of the rationality and reason of free speech over, by extension, the irrational counter-speech that criticises Charlie Hebdo's content, excludes those offended from the realm of public opinion. When counter-speech was acknowledged in the French media, for instance, it was often in a moralizing register whereby the political standing of those offended was discredited. In place of a political struggle between 'right and left', we are thus faced with a post-political struggle between 'right and wrong' (Mouffe 2005: 5), and a distinction between the reasoned political subjectivity of the French media and state, and the discredited moral subjectivity of those who 'do not accept or understand republican values'.

4.5 In contrast to the French media coverage, however, such counter-speech was covered less dismissively by online and international media, where the various reasons (see Silverstone et al. 2015) for the unwillingness to identify with Charlie were addressed. Many people, for instance, refused to identify themselves with a magazine that has uncompromisingly published images that are offensive to Muslims (Habib 2015). Some referred to Edwy Plenel's (2014) earlier diagnosis of a wider culture of banal Islamophobia in French media and politics. For Plenel, director of the Mediapart website, the pervasive stigmatisation of the large but marginalised Muslim minority in France is rooted in a sectarianisation of laïcité (Vécrin 2014). Others (such as Will Self) took issue with the satirical merit of the cartoons, suggesting that because they seem to comfort those with a voice, while afflicting those without, they seem to serve little satirical purpose (see Self's comments here). Others still were more forthright in simplistically dismissing the magazine as racist and Islamophobic.

4.6 In an article published at the end of February in Le Monde (Mignot & Goffette 2015), however, two sociologists offered a 'reasoned response' to accusations that Charlie Hebdo was 'obsessed by Islam', demonstrating through an analysis of every front page of the magazine over the past 10 years that only 7 out of 523 touched on Islam, with most of the satires of religion (38) focusing on Catholicism (21), and most of the front pages (336) focusing on politics. But despite the importance of such quantitative research and the need to, as the authors argue, 'avoid simplistic questions', dismissing offence at the content of the magazine with reason and numbers may also fail to ask the right questions. Offence can be neither reduced to numbers nor explained rationally. For example, the number of articles published by the News of the World, which not only violated privacy but which were based on information obtained illegally, may have been small compared to the overall content of the newspaper; but victims still felt that their privacy had been violated, and illegal acts had still been committed. The proportion of content in The Sun that sexualises infant celebrities, or in The Daily Mail that treats rape victims as Lolitas and immigrants as the cause of all problems, may also be small, but there's a tendency towards sexism and racism that many have diagnosed in the British tabloid press and, considering it offensive and harmful to society, presented as reasons to regulate the content of newspapers and effectively limit the freedom of expression of the press (Topping 2011). It may be simplistic and an exaggeration to call a publication sexist, racist or even a threat to national security (see Dawes & Petley 2014), but valid questions nevertheless remain about legitimate limits to free speech and a free press, which quantitative content analyses and reasoned responses don't necessarily undermine.

Free Press: Rights, Responsibilities and Purpose

5.1 Similarly, while there was little hesitation among the French media earlier this year to follow in the footsteps of Charlie and to republish its images of Muhammad, as well as other images that many Muslims have found offensive, the international media were more reserved. French media argued for the need to send a powerful message, not only by ensuring the future of the magazine and its right to offend, but to flaunt that same right themselves. Some, such as L'Express (Cochet 2015), showed frustration with mainstream Anglo-Saxon media, such as The Telegraph and CNN, for 'cowardly' censoring Charlie's images (for an overview, see Glatte 2015; Gray & Hall 2015), while praising those publications, such as The Washington Post, that have 'courageously' opted to publish them. The split between English-language old and new media (Stelter & Kludt 2015), with the former more reluctant than their online counterparts to publish material that may offend religious groups (Plunkett 2015a), the BBC's mixed messages about their own editorial stance on the issue, and decisions (Plunkett 2015b), such as The Guardian's (Penketh & Weaver 2015), to warn their readers that they may find such images shocking, were also derided. An Associated France Presse journalist based in the US even felt the need to tweet a disclaimer, clarifying that any newspaper publishing pixelated versions of AFP accredited images did so at their own discretion, not at the AFP's.

5.2 Elsewhere, many pro-press freedom organisations (such as Index on Censorship) united on the day following the attack to publish en masse many of the most controversial images. Others, such as Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, chose to express their solidarity by publishing cartoons on a wider range of issues, rather than those that simply aimed to provoke Muslims, to show support for (more nuanced accounts of) free speech and the right of the cartoonists to blaspheme, without going so far as to actually republish the images themselves. While fear of violent retaliation may well have been a factor, the decision to not republish the images may also have been an unwillingness to gratuitously offend a minority, and the result of self-reflexive contemplation on how to exercise the responsibility that goes with free speech (Modood in Editors 2015).

5.3 In both French and Anglo-Saxon contexts, however, the concepts of 'freedom of expression and freedom of the press are all too readily conflated', and often equated with the right of the press to publish whatever it wants (Petley 2012), regardless of the consequences. The principle of freedom of speech has been debased in liberal countries by the commercial orientation of corporatized media power (Steel 2012: 5) and the lack of freedom from the market, whereas in the French Republic it has been equally debased by the overly close relations between state and media. In the US, cultural identification with a free market ethos and legalistic interpretation of the first amendment are drawn upon to conflate free speech with corporate and commercial speech; in the UK, free speech is used as an excuse by tabloids to trample over the private lives of public (and not so public) figures; in France, it is stripped of its watchdog pretensions and of its duty to hold public authority and power to account, and equated instead with the right to offend without recourse to any notion of public interest.

5.4 In an anti-communitarian republic that protects the privacy of politicians and refuses to recognise cultural difference among its citizens, this right is often flaunted to offend cultural identities within the public, rather than print material about politicians that may be considered too private or too offensive. There is a difference in scope and scale, however, between an individual's relatively unrestricted freedom of expression (which ends only where another's begins) and the necessarily restricted freedom of an institution to disseminate speech to a large audience via mediated communication (Petley 2012). In the UK and US contexts, journalistic faith in public opinion and the value of free speech has deflected serious consideration of this difference, and of the potentially corrosive and anti-democratic effects of journalistic practices that are justified in the name of press freedom (Peters 2005: 17; Phelan 2014: 138). Similarly, the French journalistic zeal to flaunt their freedom of expression has obstructed reflection on the responsibilities and role of the press, above and beyond those of an individual, in a multicultural society.

5.5 An absolutist rhetoric of freedom of expression lacks any (liberal or republican) democratic end; rather, it is used as an end in itself, with no purpose and with no responsibility. Some have argued, however, that the freedom of expression of the press should be no more than a means to an end. Instead of conflating freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the latter should be regarded as an instrumental good rather than as an intrinsic good, where it is 'good insofar as it causes the press to act in the public interest and reinforces democratic ideals, but not good insofar as it…impoverishes public debate' (Petley 2012).

5.6 Nor is it an unconditional good. As a right it also needs to go hand in hand with responsibilities; contrary to the institutional ideology of the press, which is quick to assert its own rights but largely resistant to notions of attendant responsibilities (Thomas & Finneman 2015). As Onora O'Neill has argued, if newspapers act as if they have 'unrestricted rights to freedom of expression, and therefore a licence to subject positions for which they don't care to caricature and derision, misrepresentation or silence', then they would also have rights to 'undermine individuals' abilities to judge for themselves and to place their trust well, indeed rights to undermine democracy' (O'Neill 2002: 94).

5.7 Accepting obligations and limits on the freedom of expression of the press, conflicts neither with the concept of 'freedom of expression' nor with that of 'freedom of the press'. Indeed, 'the classic arguments for press freedom do not endorse, let alone require, a press with unaccountable power' (O'Neill 2002: 93).


While the events of 7th January have understandably shocked the French media in particular, the knee-jerk reaction to fetishise the free speech of the satiric offenders, to depoliticise the counter-speech of those offended, and to dismiss the editorial balancing of rights with responsibilities as self-censorship and as contrary to liberal or republican values such as press freedom, is unfortunate. The post-political, 'right and wrong' framing of debate misses an opportunity to reflexively consider the limits to the rights of the press, the balancing of rights with responsibilities, and the instrumental purpose of satire and journalism in the public interest, as well as the normative role of the media in democratic, secular and multicultural societies.


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