The Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in central Paris was a wake-up call for journalism globally. It graphically demonstrated that journalists are now terrorism targets – at their desks as well as in war zones. It created a new set of safety crises for newsrooms, and it put press freedom on the front page internationally.
It also highlighted the need for culturally sensitive reporting; the disparity between coverage of terrorism attacks affecting the West and those that plague developing countries; the threat of government censorship as a counter-terrorism measure; and the increasing risks involved in reliance on User Generated Content in the context of conflict.
Anatomy of a massacre
On January 7, 2015 terrorism struck the heart of a European newsroom. The staff of the satirical French weekly, Charlie Hebdo, which included some of the country’s most cherished political cartoonists, had gathered at their Paris headquarters for a routine editorial meeting. But at 11:30 a.m. two brothers brandishing Kalashnikov machine guns forced their way into the building before unleashing a targeted attack ultimately claimed by Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Ten people died in the newsroom that day.
The loss of Charlie Hebdo’s much-loved cartoonists – Charb, Wolinski, Cabu, and Tignous – did not cause remaining staff members to abandon the presses. Before the January attacks catapulted the magazine onto the international scene, Charlie Hebdo was a low circulation satirical publication. Just a week after the massacre, people queued before dawn to get their hands on a copy of the magazine’s “survivors” issue that ultimately sold seven million copies worldwide.
For decades, the magazine promoted its right to offend under France’s strict 1905 law on secularism – laïcité. But to its critics, Charlie Hebdo represented the epitome of gratuitous offence. And while it ridiculed all religions and political leaders, the Prophet Muhammad was among its most frequent targets.
A watershed moment for the safety of journalists
Before “Charlie,” such violence against journalists had largely been contained to war-torn and corruption-riddled corners of the developing world, where practicing journalism had been at its most deadly – Syria, Somalia, Iraq, and Mexico, among others. But with the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the global threat to journalism woke up the world, smashing the illusion that the killing of journalists only happens in war zones. The attack propelled France to the top of the list of deadliest countries for journalists in 2015 (correct at time of printing).
“Safety has come in the mind of journalists everywhere since Charlie,” Middle East and Arab World Coordinator of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Monir Zaarour told a UNESCO debate on Journalism After Charlie earlier this year.
French authorities recently advised Zaarour not to disclose details of the Paris venue hosting a journalism conference on the impact of extremist violence on media workers, because of security threats – an approach usually only taken in conflict zones.
Through the United Nation’s Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, UNESCO has been at the forefront of creating strong security plans for media worldwide.
In a series of conferences, titled “After Charlie,” Guy Berger, UNESCO’s Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, explained how state actors and media must embrace a “holistic” approach, which should include prevention, safeguarding journalists under threat, ending impunity, and support for journalists who survive or witness an attack. He described the attacks as “a watershed that highlights that the safety of journalists is not necessarily limited to countries in conflict.”
Defending media freedom through the barrel of a gun
In France, the media has experienced extreme security measures since the attack. Machine gun-toting riot squad officers and police vans are still a common sight outside media houses – a measure taken as part of France’s anti-terror alert system, known as Plan Vigipirate.
“We have been one of the most protected media houses since January 7,” Yves Bigot, Director General (DG) of international Francophone television channel TV5 Monde, told a UNESCO debate. He also has an emergency button on his desk that can alert the authorities and instantly secure the facilities if there is a threat. And threats against TV5 Monde have increased since January, according to Bigot. “We have three police officers and vehicles around the clock, plus a specialised officer who searches vehicles and people.”
But how long can the state afford this level of security – both in terms of cost and the implications for liberty? Bigot said police guards will remain in front of media houses for as long as the French authorities keep the country under maximum alert.
Days after Bigot’s appearance at UNESCO, France’s TV5 Monde was subjected to a cyber attack that took down the network’s 11 concurrent broadcasts simultaneously. The three-hour blackout also involved the hacking of TV5 Monde’s website and social media accounts. The attackers claimed to belong to ISIS. In response, the French government said it would “call an urgent meeting of French media groups to assess their vulnerability to hacking,” according to The Guardian
Increasing risks facing foreign correspondents
For journalists in the field, safety protocols can be more complex, Bigot said. TV5 Monde keeps in close contact with France’s Foreign Ministry, as well as with those of Switzerland and Belgium, to stay abreast of any threats abroad
Journalists are also instructed to avoid cell phones – as they can be used by hostile actors to identify their whereabouts – and use trackers to enable the central office to locate them at any point.
“As soon as they reach an area that is not highly protected, they turn their trackers on – like a pager – so that we can specifically locate the journalist at any time in the field,” Bigot said. “When we see that it is stable for too long, we worry.”
But foreign correspondents also face a new threat: the risk of their interpreters and fixers being “turned” by ISIS or other terrorist groups. “They are … nationals of the country in the field, they are absolutely essential in the Middle East and central Africa, (but) they can be turned by Daesh (ISIS). They are bought for financial reasons and can turn on our journalists,” Bigot said. “They have the means of changing the lives of these fixers and can also be turned for ideological reasons and can be turned very quickly. ‘We will sleep in this hotel. We are currently in this vehicle on this road’ – it can be information like this given to these groups.”
According to Bigot, betrayal by fixers has resulted in the abduction of journalists, and the random nature of the threat makes it very difficult to combat.
The toll is still much higher for local journalists
While foreign correspondents working for major Western media outlets still face threats in the field, they have access to more support and training than freelancers living pitch-by-pitch, or local journalists in conflict zones. “It’s the responsibility of the employer to protect journalists. But freelancers don’t have access to this protection,” said IFJ’s Zaarour.
In response, IFJ has overhauled the traditional model of Western trainers flying in to assist local reporters with safety and security training. “You cannot train all of the journalists in conflict areas,” Zaarour said, “It’s impossible.”
IFJ now relies on “train-the-trainer” schemes, with international trainers helping to develop the skills of locally based trainers achieving greater impact, with the added advantage of local context and nuance.
“Je suis Charlie”
Just 30 minutes after news of the Charlie Hebdo attack broke, three short words became known around the globe. “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) went viral as the solidarity slogan for the freedom of expression campaign that followed the attacks. The same rallying cry seemingly bound France together as officials, citizens, and the media projected an image of unity
But behind the headlines, the reaction was more divided. The counter-slogan “Je ne suis pas Charlie” spoke for those ill at ease with the magazine’s content and who believe freedom of expression has necessary limitations and associated responsibilities. Critics of the “Je suis Charlie” movement highlighted the alienating impact of the magazine on diverse Muslim communities in France. Others disregarded the show of solidarity completely, lamenting the dangers of such division.
UK-based author and professor Kenan Malik said while the display of broad solidarity was impressive, it came 20 years too late. “Had journalists and artists and political activists taken a more robust view on free speech over the past 20 years, then we may never have come to this. Instead, they have helped create a new culture of self-censorship,” Malik told the World Editors Forum.
Still, the perception that the media has united in unprecedented solidarity in the face of such an attack largely prevails. “These journalists represent freedom of the press and, moreover, the spirit of liberty itself … On this day of mourning, we stand firm in our commitment to never give in to threats, nor terror,” a statement from the heads of many French media houses read. “We will not let silence take hold. We will stay vigilant in our fight against all forms of prejudice.”
The French press has also collectively raised funds to ensure continuation of the publication, which had faced imminent bankruptcy. Just a day after the attack, it raised half a million euros, which was supplemented by 500,000 euros in donations from the Press and Pluralism Fund, set up by French newspaper publishers, and the Digital Press Innovation Fund financed by Google.
“It was an obligation as citizens to support them to do their jobs because our values were under attack,” Ludovic Blecher, the Director of the Digital Press Innovation Fund said. “The question was not to support what they were saying, but just to allow them to say what they want.”
Security vs. liberty: a dangerous barter
How can a government safeguard its citizens from terrorism while still protecting civil liberties? Is it an oxymoron to think we can be both safe and free? Or can a government strike harmony to ensure it respects individual liberties while protecting our collective security?
“This is the big question for the first half of the 21st century – security versus freedom,” said Bigot, responding to a question on whether France should adopt the equivalent of the United States’ Patriot Act. “To what extent should we curb this freedom, which until now we thought was absolute? This is not a question we had to ask very often in the past, so it’s not an easy one,” Bigot said.
In March 2015, two months after the Charlie Hebdo attack, the French government introduced a new law giving French spy agencies more powers to bug and track potential terrorists, while blocking access to sites deemed to defend terrorism. Authorities will also be able to force internet providers to monitor suspicious behaviour – without needing the green light of a judge.
“What is really worrying is that there is absolutely no mention of journalist protection whatsoever,” Antoine Héry, the Head of European Union and Balkans Desk at Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) said. The organisation is pushing for a clear journalists’ exception because of concerns that the bill could ultimately have a chilling effect on how journalists are able to cover stories related to terrorism and the confidentiality of sources, which has limited protection under a 2010 French law.
“This is just absolute nonsense in a democracy to have journalists that can’t work on terrorism related topics without fearing to be spied on by the government,” Héry said.
The bill passed unopposed through the lower house of the French parliament as this report went to print.
Press freedom: an absolute right?
One of the major shortfalls of the “I am – or I am not – Charlie” binary is the semblance of a rigid “them” versus “us” dichotomy.
Writing for The Guardian, Nasrine Malik said, “It is impossible to reduce the Charlie Hebdo tragedy to anything as simple as two cultures clashing over the sanctity of a Prophet.”
On the surface, Malik says it’s understandable to view the perpetrators as “barbaric and silencing” while the victims “enlightened and freedom-loving.” However, she warns that a far more complex truth of racial and religious tension clouds this over-simplification.
As the initial steadfast support for Charlie Hebdo diminishes, a debate has resurfaced: Should we, as a global community, appease individual sensitivities, or allow for unfettered free speech in all its forms? And what are the implications for journalists and editorial-decision makers?
Independent journalism relies on press freedom to function and it has a responsibility to “afflict the powerful.” Therein lies the power of satire. However, ridiculing minorities and inciting hatred against them is a different matter.
Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman wrote that everyone has a line where freedom of expression stops – it’s just a matter of where it’s drawn.
Ari Goldman, a teacher on reporting religion at Columbia University believes religious sensibilities should be respected. “We let other sensibilities govern our media coverage,” Goldman told the World Editors Forum. “We worry about people’s culinary, fashion, political, environmental and sexual sensibilities. Religion is central to the lives of many of our readers, listeners and viewers. We have to be sensitive to what they think and feel.”
However, Kenan Malik believes the line should only be drawn at the point of direct incitement to violence, while the trajectory during the past couple of decades has moved in favour of appeasing cultural sensitivities. “Over the past quarter century we created a culture where many, including liberals, have come to believe that it is morally wrong to offend other cultures, other religions, other people,” he said. “It has been a fundamental shift in our attitudes towards freedom of expression. Far from challenging that, the Charlie Hebdo killings are likely to entrench such attitudes further.”
Malik warned that this could have far-reaching implications. When a culture of censorship forms around the fear of offence, it’s the minority communities – including Muslims – who suffer most. The way forward, Malik says, is to ensure that all people are “equally sheltered by liberties” – not deprived of them.
However, in the case of marginalised Muslim communities in the West, persistently negative, narrow media portrayals that frequently conflate crime and terrorism with race and religion can cause alienation and, in some cases, contribute to the proliferation of hate crimes.
The other point to note is that France’s vehement defence of the “right to blaspheme” is not universally accepted as a corollary to press freedom. In many countries – especially within emerging democracies – greater emphasis is placed editorially on reflecting multicultural harmony.
And freedom of expression rights extend to allowing editors and journalists to choose not to publish an image, cartoon or report that is deemed too insensitive or inflammatory in comparison to its editorial value. In this context, WAN-IFRA declined to re-publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the aftermath of the attacks. And, similarly, we have chosen not to illustrate this chapter with those images, although we respect and defend the right of other editors and publishers to do so.
In parallel, there is a practical risk assessment to be conducted by editors: what is the risk to your staff of publishing an item with the sole purpose of causing offence? And can the costs associated with such a decision – both human and financial – be justified from editorial, ethical and business management perspectives?
The media’s single vision
More than 4,000 kilometres from Paris another major story was unfolding at the time of the Charlie Hebdo atrocities. Boko Haram militants had overtaken the Nigerian town of Baga, burning buildings and indiscriminately killing local residents. Initial reports said some 2,000 people were killed over several days and thousands more displaced by violence.
Yet, the global media gave it paltry coverage in comparison. Even in Nigeria itself, the media gave more space to the Paris massacre, and former President Goodluck Jonathan condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo while making no mention of Baga.
Nigerian editor-in-chief of the Daily Trust, Mannir Dan-Ali says the discrepancy might be an issue of access. The attack on Charlie Hebdo occurred in a cosmopolitan city, while Baga is largely inaccessible, even to the four journalists Dan-Ali has based in Borno state.
“It depends on what the media agenda is and what is easily accessible. Look at Chibok, coverage came much later than the actual abduction of the girls,” Dan-Ali said, adding that the international media was only hooked when the hashtag #bringbackourgirls raced around the world.
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, “to publish or not to publish” quickly became a common question posed in newsrooms worldwide. Outlets had to decide whether they would republish Charlie Hebdo content, including cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed. But this wasn’t the only ethical dilemma posed by the drama unfolding in Paris.
Engineer Jordi Mir was alone in his Paris apartment when he saw the two gunmen approach wounded police officer Ahmed Merabet as they made their escape from the magazine’s premises. He recorded the whole scene as one of the brothers approached the officer and asked, “You want to kill us?” Merabet replied, “No, it’s OK, boss,” trying to calm the situation – but he was shot in the head seconds later.
Mir captured the entire exchange on video. In a panic, and what he described – in an exclusive interview with the Associated Press – as a “stupid reflex” honed by years on social media, he posted it on Facebook. Fifteen minutes later, Mir scrambled to take it down. But it was too late. “A friend of a friend” had already seen it and posted it on YouTube.
Soon it was being broadcast by a number of news organisations. Some new organisations pixelated Merabet being killed, or ended the video. However, others like Malachy Browne, Managing Editor and Europe Anchor of First Look Media’s new social media venture Reported.ly, found the footage “gratuitously violent” and chose not to publish.
Still, it could be easily located online and seen on numerous media outlets – a reality that caused great distress for Mir – who had never granted any news site permission to republish it – and for officer Merabet’s family who had to witness his death, over and over again.
“Eyewitnesses are placed under great pressure when they are often alone and still experiencing a traumatic event,” Jenni Sargent, Director of Eyewitness Media Hub, said. “They are expected to make difficult decisions on the spot and often they will change their mind hours or days later when it is too late.”
Browne said he tries to engage with eyewitnesses as much as possible. “When I’m looking at pictures and trying to engage with people in northern Nigeria or living in an authoritarian state and they are posting incriminating information or pictures that could put them at risk, I will ask them questions about how their information can be used,” he said.
As Sargent stressed, resources and training must be directed to address the ethics and legality of using content from a smartphone-equipped citizen in the moment of horror.
What have we learned?
Ultimately, the January attacks brought home to a Western audience the fragile nature of freedom of expression – a fact that millions of others elsewhere around the world are forced to confront on a daily basis. Journalists are inevitably in the front line of the struggle to defend the collective rights of society when they cover corruption, accountability and failings in the rule of law.
When they become targets of those in power – state or non-state actors, criminals and violent extremists – it is a warning to the whole of society.
But while we defend our collective right to media freedom, work on improving safety training for journalists and reinforce newsroom security, we also have a responsibility to critically reflect on our editorial values and ethics, while considering the potentially damaging impacts of problematic reporting on marginalised communities.
Picture: Main photo by Tim Anger.
Trends in Newsrooms 2015
This feature appears in the World Editors Forum’s Trends in Newsrooms 2015, which is free for members to download. Read about some of the trends already published in our blog series, including: