Many Filipinos heard it from clerics bristling over tour guide Carlos Celdran’s holding aloft a streamer with the word “Damaso” on it during a mass at the Manila Cathedral. They’ve also heard it from politicians who file libel suits against journalists for supposedly defaming them by exposing how they funneled State funds into their private bank accounts. They’ve heard it too from those Church-going, novena-praying, God-fearing guardians of public morals offended by an artist’s installation at the Cultural Center.
We’ve heard it all before, and we’re going to keep hearing it in this country, despite its claim that it’s a democracy: it’s that the right to free expression has its limits.
But those who say it are absolutely right — except that the limits to free expression are not defined by one’s being offended or made uncomfortable, or by someone else’s expressing ideas different from, or contrary to, one’s own. In democratic societies, or those pretending to be democratic, those limits should be solely determined by the potential harm free expression can inflict, whether on individuals, groups, communities and institutions, or on society itself.
That’s because the practice of free expression has consequences. A news report — one of the many forms free expression often takes — can damage reputations, or incite panic and endanger public safety. It can affect the present and future of children, divide already truncated societies, or further estrange the marginalized and the voiceless from the rest of society. In irresponsible hands, free expression and the free press can aggravate conflicts and provoke wars.
Much of the US media, for example, legitimized the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the destruction of that country by inaccurately linking it to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the New York World Trade Center and the headquarters of the US Department of Defense. At the turn of the 20th century, the US press, in the exercise of the right to free expression, helped make the US conquest of the Philippines possible — and successfully concealed its cost in Filipino lives.
While absolutely essential in a free society, free expression can justify, conceal and even contribute to the suffering of millions. It helps explain why journalism ethics warns practitioners not to cause, or at least minimize, harm, and to be accountable for what they print, broadcast or upload. Amplified, reproduced and disseminated through the mass media, free expression without accountability can also become a hindrance rather than a help to the human imperative of understanding each other and the world.
But the harm free expression can and sometimes does cause can only be addressed through reasoned criticism rather than through the legal restraints that have often been proposed in the Philippines by, among others, politicians sensitive to criticism and exposure. Imposing limits on free expression through law subverts the necessary functions of exposing error and wrongdoing, enabling citizens to express themselves both as a human right and as a necessary condition for informed discourse, and holding the powerful to account.
If legal restraint is unacceptable, violence is the worst response to the abuse of free expression, whether real or imaginary, and no matter how irresponsible or how repugnant a form it has taken. The killing, supposedly by Islamic fundamentalists, of several staff members of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo cannot be justified, no matter how irresponsible, tasteless, racist and even “un-funny” critics allege the magazine to be.
Those critics condemn the violence against Charlie Hebdo and against free expression, but refuse to be identified with the magazine. The Swedish peace advocate and author Jan Oberg, for example, explains why, contrary to the “I am Charlie (Je Suis Charlie)” expressions of solidarity with the magazine that has enticed millions in Europe, he is “not Charlie.” (“Eleven Reflections That Mean I Am Not Charlie”)
Oberg asks if freedom of expression is “really 100% the right path, irrespective of how much the practice of that freedom is hurtful, offending, humiliating or discriminatory against other peoples, religions and cultures.” He agrees that people even then have the right to do so, but what would be the point of it, except to exacerbate existing divisions and to fan further hatred against a community whose members, in France and elsewhere, have been racially profiled, discriminated against, prevented by law from even wearing such symbols of their faith as the hijab (the veil and headscarf Muslim women wear as a sign of modesty), and demonized as terrorists?
“Why is it so important to some media people and Je Suis Charlie people,” Oberg asks, “to accept or practice disdain, blasphemy, ridicule or depict (even naked) Muhammad when we know that that is offending at least quite a few of the 1,600 million Muslims around the world? What constructive purpose does it serve? Really, why is that OK when anything similar against Jews would immediately be categorized as anti-Semitism and found appalling by the same people — not the least by the advocates of the free press?”
Another Charlie Hebdo critic, the satirist Josh Healey, describes the magazine (in “I Will Grieve, I Will Laugh, But I am not Charlie,” from www.commondreams.org) as “puerile” and “immature,” and its so-called satire as “cheap shots” that fan racist hysteria.
Murder is murder, says Healey, and we should all condemn the murder of Charlie Hebdo’s staff members. “The definition of murder is clear… but other terms are more malleable to political calculations. According to mainstream media, the mass killers in France are ‘Islamic terrorists,’ while the American generals who order drone strikes on children in Pakistan are ‘heroes of war.’ Printing anti-Muslim cartoons is ‘freedom of speech,’ while Holocaust jokes are ‘unacceptable’ to a civilized society.” (Healey is Jewish.)
In short, he can’t identify with Charlie Hebdo, says Healey, because its alleged humor discriminates between what’s acceptable and what isn’t, isn’t even funny but vicious and nasty, and reeks of racist hysteria.
But no matter how valid these criticisms are, are they at all even relevant? Some of the journalists who’ve been killed for their work in the Philippines, for example, were hardly saints, but the journalism and media community have dismissed claims, among them by the Aquino government, that at least some were corrupt and unprofessional, because it would divert attention from the fact that, as Healey puts it, “murder is murder.”
Alas, the circumstances — the contexts — are entirely different. Whether they were saints or sinners, or corrupt or honest, what the journalists killed in the Philippines were doing was hardly of the same category of mindlessness as Charlie Hebdo was doing. They might have been biased, unfair, or even inaccurate, but they were not engaged in the kind of humiliation, profiling and ridiculing of the over five million men and women of the Islamic faith who, in France, again according to Healey, “face rampant discrimination and even violent exclusion.”
That context makes the potential for harm — not only to the Muslim community, but to other groups, and, as it turned out, to the staff of Charlie Hebdo itself — a near certainty.
Additionally should we remember that even in the context of the killing of journalists in the Philippines, media advocacy and journalists’ groups have linked their condemnation of the killings with appeals for members of the press to comply with their own ethical and professional standards. By those same universal standards, particularly the injunction not to cause, or at least to minimize harm, should Charlie Hebdo be held. Only then will Je suis Charlie be truly meaningful.
Luis V. Teodoro is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Published in Business World
January 16, 2015