Culture

Two years after the Charlie Hebdo attack, freedom of expression remains an issue

The mass shooting at the French satire magazine "Charlie Hebdo" shook Europe. But despite the outpouring of solidarity, there's no consensus about the limits of artistic freedom of expression.

Gedenkveranstaltung zu Anschlägen in Paris in Berlin 11.1.2015 (picture alliance/AP Photo/Schreiber)

On January 7, 2015, two Islamic assassins stormed the editorial building of the French satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" in Paris. The attack killed 12 people, including the magazine's editor, Stéphane Charbonnier.

"Charlie Hebdo" had previously published several caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, and employees had been threatened by radical Islamists beforehand.

While the shooting propelled a wave of solidarity across Europe, thousands holding "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) signs aloft on the streets, it also started a fierce debate about artistic freedom of expression. How can it be protected? And what are the possible limits of freedom of expression?

Some say there should be no limits. "Lese-majeste (mocking a monarch or head of state) and blasphemy were formerly part of the criminal code, but have now disappeared," explained the philosopher Ottfried Höffe in an interview with DW. "There may be difficulties with other cultures … but Western cultures rightly show how a society blossoms when it permits extreme forms of artistic freedom."

Banner calling for religious freedom (picture-alliance/dpa/Kay Nietfeld)

A Muslim community rally in Berlin advocating tolerance after Charlie Hebdo attack

Attacks on cultural identity

The "Charlie Hebdo" shooting was one of several attacks on cultural institutions. The Swedish art professor and Mohammed cartoonist Lars Vilks barely escaped an attack in February 2015. The following month in Tunisia, jihadists perpetrated a massacre at the Bardo Museum of Archeology.

And in Palmyra in Syria, so-called "Islamic State" terrorists systematically destroyed large parts of an ancient UNESCO world heritage site.

Only a few months later, in November 2015, there was another wave of attacks in Paris, including at the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 concert-goers were killed. Also in July 2016, a man in Nice drove a truck into a crowd during a French national holiday. Twelve people were similarly killed in the attack on a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016.

The perpetrators of all these attacks were not concerned with the enforcement of concrete political or religious demands. Their attacks were directed against freedom of liberty and cultural identity.

Repression by the state

Artistic freedom and freedom of expression are restricted in many countries. According to PEN international, around 900 authors and journalists are currently incarcerated in nearly 100 countries and are routinely subjected to oppression.

This situation has especially escalated in Turkey in the last two years. During the 2015 election campaign in the country, opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were often branded as traitors and terrorists.

In the wake of the coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, numerous media companies and book publishers were closed down. Erdogan also arrested around 100 journalists. "The witch hunt against journalists in Turkey is breaking all the previous limits," said Britta Hilpert of Reporters Without Borders on the organization's website.

Screenshot Jan Böhmermann in ZDF Neo Magazin Royale rezitiert Gedicht über Erdogan (ZDF Neo Magazin Royale)

Jan Böhmermann in Neo Magazine Royale reciting his poem about President Erdogan

The Böhmermann case

Erdogan has also tried to quash objectionable satire from abroad. In March 2016, the German satirist Jan Böhmermann presented a mocking poem in his program "Neo Magazin Royale," in which he accused Erdogan, among other things, of bestiality. Erdogan tried to prosecute on the basis of lese-majeste but had no success in German courts.

The Turkish president is also trying to have the poem banned, which will be decided in the courts on February 10. The judge will have to decide whether injuries to the Turkish president's honor outweigh the right to artistic freedom and freedom of expression that Böhmermann claims.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was accused of "preemptive obedience" (in the times of former East Germany, this meant obeying orders that have not been issued, but today mostly applies to situations that might cause offence) when she described the poem by Jan Böhmermann as "deliberately hurtful." Merkel was accused of having made concessions to President Erdogan because she did not want to endanger the refugee agreement with his government. Böhmermann, who did not comment until a long time after the complaint, finally said in his commentary on the video: "If a joke triggers a state crisis, it's the state's problem, not the joke's."

First German edition of Charlie Hebdo (DW/P. Böll)

Angela Merkel is mocked in the first German edition of Charlie Hebdo

Charlie Hebdo today

A wide public perceives some jokes as being in poor taste, such as "Charlie Hebdo" comparing earthquake victims in Central Italy with Italian pasta dishes. Many readers and sympathizers subsequently distanced themselves from the Parisian satirists under the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasCharlie (I am not Charlie).

Meanwhile, the first German "Charlie Hebdo" issue on November 2016 was not squeamish about satirizing Angela Merkel. But the magazine, whose circulation in France has increased since the attack, continues to split fans of satire.

Since the attacks, Charlie Hebdo's staff in Paris must do their artistic work in hiding. Their secret premises are strictly guarded. Some employees remain under police protection.

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