EFF is stunned and deeply saddened by the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper. As free speech advocates, we mourn the use of violence against individuals who used creativity and free expression to engage in cultural and political criticism. Murder is the ultimate form of censorship.
The journalists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo have long used satire to engage in cultural critique, a form of expression strongly protected by international norms and with deep historical roots in prompting societal change and igniting discussions on controversial issues (see, for example, Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal and Voltaire’s Candide). In the age of the Internet, satire is finding fecund ground on video sharing sites, social media, and across the blogosphere as a way of engaging in discussion on political issues, social ideas, economic theory, and even poking fun at celebrities. While satire has a long history in France, it has become commonplace in many countries, including in the Middle East, where satirists such as Bassem Youssef (“Egypt’s Jon Stewart”) have faced pressure to go silent. In the face of tragedy and extremism, humor can be a way of reclaiming power.
Often in the wake of a terrorist attack, we see governments move swiftly to adopt new laws without consideration of the privacy rights being sacrificed in the process. Even as we mourn the losses at Charlie Hebdo, we must be wary of any attempt to rush through new surveillance and law enforcement powers, which are likely to disproportionately affect Muslims and other minorities.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on individuals exercising their free expression rights. But we must not sacrifice some rights in a rush to protect others.
There are numerous instances in which countries enacted sweeping new laws in the wake of an attack or in response to a threat, when grief and fear outweighed commitments to freedom of expression and privacy. The consequences can be far reaching. In the United Kingdom, the government swiftly revised police powers with the Terrorist Act of 2006 in the wake of bombings in London. In Australia, new legislative measures were introduced in response to a foiled terrorism plot. In 2012, Iraq tried to quickly push through a set of strict “cybercrime” laws in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings. And in the U.S., the 9/11 attacks were used to justify poorly considered legislation that significantly broadened surveillance authorities. Already, U.S. senators are using the Paris attacks to justify mass surveillance programs by the National Security Agency.
Let us defend freedom of expression by committing to uphold all rights.