by Joey Wilson-Brooke
The events of January 7th at the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo shocked the western world to its core. One of the fundamental values in Western culture was attacked; our freedom of expression – a basic human right. We all remember the slogans that mapped the changing attitudes towards these attacks: ‘Je suis Charlie’ rippled across the world on a wave of social media until some people found their voice to confront popular opinion. For those who had opposed the magazine’s controversial cartoons, articles and attitudes, a new tag embodied their disgust: ‘Je suis Ahmed,’ taking the name of the Muslim police officer gunned down in the line of duty defending the publication. But why does this recap of well-known events matter? It matters because we can’t be expected to understand the fallout without remembering the initial incident. The incidents at Hebdo kicked off 2015, but what did they culminate in?
May 5th saw Charlie Hebdo receive an award from the PEN American Centre, a branch of PEN International. This award was the Oxfam Novib/PEN Freedom of Expression Award and it proved a little controversial for those who felt the magazine’s cartoons were offensive. As the Economist bluntly put it, ‘PEN is not giving Charlie Hebdo the “We Like Your Cartoons” award’ but a prize for ‘courage’. What did spark interest was when well known PEN advocates in the literary world, such as Michael Ondatjee, Peter Carey and others, withdrew from the event on this grounds. People took this as a sign to discredit PEN’s actions but really, this was simply the right of the writers to express their own, personal feelings. This controversy was another incident where people were forced to find their feet on the ever shifting line that is freedom of expression.
In September, UK attitudes to the Syrian refugee crisis became a hot topic when the image of the drowned toddler, Aylan Kurdi, surfaced on the front pages of tabloids and newspapers. Soon, even papers that had been delivering discouraging messages about the refugees had taken up an empathetic line. Charlie Hebdo lived up to its reputation, publishing cartoons about the boy that have been denounced as “racist…and ideologically bankrupt” and resulting in another hashtag surging, ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ – I’m not Charlie. However, some feedback towards the cartoons interpreted the magazine as critiquing “European sensibilities”. Side-lining my own opinions on the matter, the debate over the meaning behind these cartoons demonstrates my argument earlier that expression is rarely black and white. Hebdo continues to make society question not only where we stand, but also where they stand on such topics.
As jihadi origin stories began to emerge last year, university campuses began to be labelled a hot bed for radicalism by the government. Theresa May introduced legal sanctions in the counter-terrorism bill, putting pressure on universities across the country to prevent radical ideas from entering their ‘academic world’. In doing so, questions of ‘no platforming’ on campus began to emerge and the status of censorship on campus was brought to a culmination in Spiked Online’s review (UoY used to be in the green but it’s now amber).
(For a more detailed perspective on no-platforming, check out co-chair Madeleine Stone’s comment piece here!)
This has only been a whirlwind tour of some of the key moments in freedom of expression last year. The point to this however is to argue that, regardless of your stance on the events of 7th Jan 2015, after Hebdo ‘freedom of expression’ became the phrase on everyone’s lips. The issue was brought to the public eye. We started to question when we had moved so past the line that it became a dot, and what it means to live in a technological age where what we say can be repeated again so easily. Freedom of expression became not simply a right but a treasure, something to be thankful to but also to be used with care and consideration. We learned to think a little.