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Free speech must not be silenced in the wake of Charlie Hebdo attack

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A victim is evacuated on a stretcher on January 7, 2015 after armed gunmen stormed the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris (AFP Photo/Martin Bureau)

I am sure that all British journalists will agree with the statement issued by Jodie Ginsberg , chief executive of Index on Censorship, following the murderous attack on the staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo :

“The ability to express ourselves freely is fundamental to a free society. This includes the freedom to publish, to satirise, to joke, to criticise, even when that might cause offence to others. Those who wish to silence free speech must never be allowed to prevail”.

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Similarly, we can all agree with Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, who described the attack as “an attempt to assassinate the free press”. She added:

“Supporters of free speech and civil liberties must stand together with governments to condemn this act and defend the right of all journalists to do their job without fear of threats, intimidation and brutal murder”.

Doubtless, there will be people who think the magazine was overly provocative in publishing cartoons of Islam’s prophet Mohammed. If so, they should think again.

Let them ponder this key clause in the United Nations’ universal declaration of human rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”

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Press freedom and the freedom of speech allow for newspapers and individual citizens to express views that are offensive. Britain, in company with countries across Europe and the continents of America and Australia, long ago repealed – or never enacted – laws condemning heretics (and blasphemers) to death.

Although we know that Voltaire never did write the words ascribed to him about the right to speak freely, they are, or should be, our maxim:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

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It was certainly the credo of Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief, Stephane Charbonnier, and his staff. They refused to be cowed by the threats and by the firebombing of their offices in November 2011.

As Charbonnier said at the time, the attack confirmed that the magazine had been right to defy Islamist extremists.

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He said: “If we can poke fun at everything in France, if we can talk about anything in France apart from Islam or the consequences of Islamism, that is annoying”.

That, of course, is the point. We must not only support the right of people to express controversial opinions but be prepared to express them ourselves despite the intimidation.

Now, surely, is the time for the publishers and editors of mainstream publications across the world to honour the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo by refusing to self-censor. Nothing, including a religion, should be off limits.

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Satire challenges sacred cows, but it does not slaughter them. Satire hurts, but it does not cause physical injury. Satire wounds, but it does not kill.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015


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