To Award or Not to Award

Satire at the Heart of Free Speech Debate

In November 2013, Charlie Hebdo Editor-in-Chief Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb) published a cartoon depicting Christiane Taubira, France’s Justice Minister, who is black, as an ape. His intention was to raise awareness of the racism prevalent in the Front National (National Front), the extreme right-wing political party led by Marine Le Pen. Charb titled it “Rassemblement Bleu Raciste” (Racist Blue Union) as a play on the Front National’s slogan, “Rassemblement Bleu Marine” (Blue Marine Union). After the cartoon appeared, some people accused Charlie Hebdo of racism. Despite the magazine’s consistent use of satire to question authority and institutions of all kinds, some critics take its work literally, labeling it not only racist but also Islamaphobic, homophobic and otherwise intolerant of people’s differences.

French cartoonist and development economist Emmanuel Letouzé, who goes by the pen name Manu, says such accusations couldn’t be further from the truth. He unconditionally backs Charlie Hebdo’s use of satire to support a humanitarian point of view. “I would not support them if they were racists,” he said in an interview earlier this summer at his office on Madison Avenue in New York. Indeed, Charb was a member of the non-profit organization The Movement against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples. Two days before his January 7 murder at the hands of Al Qaeda terrorists, he completed a book titled Letter to the Islamophobia Swindlers Who Play Into the Hands of Racists. It was published in April.

“Political commentary gets to the heart of what the people at Charlie Hebdo were doing,” said Letouzé, who is also the director of the Data-Pop Alliance, the first think tank on big data and development, co-created by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, MIT Media Lab and Overseas Development Institute. “They were super-passionate, super-hardcore, and many of their cartoons weren’t primarily meant to be funny. They were intense. What you can do in cartoons is often inappropriate in words.”

Those who are not regular readers of Charlie Hebdo likely don’t understand its work, added Letouzé, sketching in his notebook throughout the interview. “We live in an age of data and social media, and content goes wild with little context.”

Shock. Don’t Shoot.

In May, Letouzé was one of several cartoonists who spoke at a New York forum hosted by human rights organization PEN American Center, which awarded Charlie Hebdo a “freedom of expression courage” award at its literary gala. During the panel discussion, the group discussed Charb’s ape cartoon as one example of the magazine’s use of satire to wake people up to injustice, racism and other social ills.

“Being shocked is part of democratic debate,” said Charlie Hebdo’s new top editor, Gérard Biard, upon receiving the award. “Being shot is not.”

Letouzé expressed dismay that more than 200 PEN members opposed an award given in honor of colleagues who died while exercising their right to free speech. Wouldn’t journalists and writers, of all people, try to understand the magazine’s work before criticizing it?

Despite their PEN membership, the dissenting group signed a letter of protest, arguing that the award crossed a line between “staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.” For his part, Salman Rushdie took the debate outside the private gala. On Facebook he exchanged harsh words with Francine Prose, one of the award protestors. “Our fellow artists were murdered for their ideas, and you won’t stand up for them,” Rushdie said. “I hope that our long alliance can survive this. But I fear some old friendships will break on this wheel.”

Katy Glenn Bass, PEN America’s deputy director of Free Expression Programs, reiterated the organization’s defense of its award in a July phone interview. When asked about context, she said it doesn’t matter: “We defend your right to publish anything you want, whether people understand it or not.”


Coming Back to Haunt You

The Writer’s Dilemma

“Will I be able to publish everything when I’m older, without the government coming after me?” Elea asked her mother, Patricia, head of strategy at a global IT company based in the south of France.

Patricia replied, “I hope.”

“I know first-hand that journalists are worried about their ability to do their job,” Patricia said in a recent telephone interview. “Back in November, I met with some journalists from L.A. and when our interview was over, we talked off-the-record. They said they feel less free to write about certain topics than before 9/11.”

Patricia’s reflections are consistent with the report Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on Writers, published earlier this year by PEN American Center, part of PEN International, a global organization working in over 100 countries to defend freedom of expression.

“What was most surprising is that writers in democratic societies are self-censoring to a degree that approaches the level of self-censorship observed in non-democratic societies,” said Katy Glenn Bass, the report’s author and deputy director of Freedom of Expression programs at PEN America. “Writers in democratic countries don’t necessarily believe their governments will respect their privacy.”

The report’s findings reflect the views of 772 writers and journalists in 50 countries who responded to online surveys between August 28 and October 15, 2014.

American Writers Curtailing Activities

The 2015 global report builds on an October 2013 survey of U.S. writers. Of those surveyed in the U.S. :

  • 85% said they were very or somewhat worried about government surveillance
  • 40% avoided activities on social media, or seriously considered doing so
  • 33% steered clear of certain topics in personal phone conversations or email messages, or seriously considered it
  • 27% avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic and refrained from conducting internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be deemed controversial, or seriously considered it

“The high level of concern among U.S. writers mirrors that of writers living in the other four countries that make up the ‘Five Eyes’ surveillance alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom), 84% of whom are very or somewhat worried about government surveillance,” the global report states. “Writers are not outliers when it comes to their level of concern about government surveillance.”

The report cites a Pew Research Center survey in which 80% of Americans agree that U.S. society should be worried about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and internet communications.

“There is a lot that we don’t know about the NSA,” said Bass, referring to the U.S. National Security Agency, which collects massive amounts of emails and millions of phone records per day for anti-terrorism purposes. “I just assume they are monitoring me.”

She is also concerned about surveillance conducted by other governments, in particular when corresponding with Chinese dissidents because they could be put at risk for talking with her. “One Chinese writer is on his 14th social media account because the Chinese government keeps shutting his down,” she said.

Free, Not Free: That Is the Question

The global report sheds light on writers’ behavior in a post-9/11 world and how the U.S. government’s reputation as the defender of the free world is being damaged. “The levels of self-censorship reported by writers in liberal democracies are astonishing, and demonstrate that mass surveillance programs conducted by democracies are chilling freedom of expression among writers,” the report stated. “Awareness of mass surveillance in democratic societies is prompting many writers to behave similarly to those living in countries with histories of widespread state surveillance, indicating that these writers are not confident that their governments will not abuse the information collected under these surveillance programs.”

In dissecting trends for the global report, PEN used a global map published by Freedom House, which categorizes countries as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. The findings are startling.

For example:

  • 34% of writers in Free countries, 44% of writers in Partly Free countries and 61% of writers in Not Free countries have avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic, or have considered doing so, due to fear of government surveillance
  • When it comes to internet activity, behavior patterns are the same in Free and Not Free countries – 26% of writers in both types of countries have refrained from conducting internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be deemed controversial, or have considered doing so

Decline of the Western Value System

The survey methodology itself reflects the high level of concern that writers and PEN representatives have about government surveillance. The survey was programmed such that respondents’ IP addresses were not stored and that data would be encrypted. PEN collected data in the aggregate to protect individuals’ anonymity.

Despite the extensive measures, some respondents fear their opinions might come back to haunt them.

“It is clear to me from the information I have given you that my responses to the questionnaire, and presumably also before this statement, can be traced back to me,” one survey respondent wrote anonymously. “It may be that this information will be hacked by security agencies. Surely anyone who thinks thoughts like these will be in danger—if not today, then (because this is a process) possibly tomorrow.” Another respondent submitted, “Believe it or not, completing this survey made me apprehensive. How sad, living in a democratic country. How did we come to this!”

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden prompted yet another respondent’s concerns. “I believe that most U.K. citizens are now regularly under levels of surveillance that make the Stasi seem amateurish,” she said. “I may be paranoid, but I believe not.”

While the West engages in a global war with ISIS, some writers actually question whether “Western” values still exist at all, and whether anyone can ever be free now that surveillance has become so digital and widespread.

Said one respondent: “The unlawful secret intelligence [activity] of the U.S. and its closest allies strengthens and encourages totalitarian states and despots through its blatant harm to human and citizen’s rights. We are becoming hostages of the self-destruction of the ‘western’ value system.”