Skip to main content

We Are Charlie 我們都是查理

2014 wasn’t a good year for journalists and political satirists. Two American reporters were among a handful of Western hostages beheaded by the militant group ISIS in August and September. After that came a series of cyber attacks on Sony Pictures for ridiculing North Korea’s paramount leader Kim Jong-un in the comedy The Interview. Here in Hong Kong, we learned in horror the brutal knife attack on Kevin Lau (劉進圖), former chief editor of the Ming Pao Daily, outside his apartment building on that fateful February morning. It remains unclear whom Lau had ticked off for him to be stabbed six times in the back and legs.

"We are all Charlie"

Those who had hoped that 2015 would be a better year for free speech had their bubbles burst only days after they put down the champagne flutes and party hats. On 7 January, heavily-armed Islamic extremists stormed the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in central Paris and murdered the magazine’s lead cartoonists. Firsthand accounts of the midday massacre were chilling: masked gunmen threatened to shoot a staffer’s young daughter if she didn’t give them the building’s entry code, and once they were inside the newspaper office, called out their targets by name. The shooting left twelve people dead, all because a group of people who couldn’t take a joke were upset by some silly cartoons published years ago.

That one of the dozen victims was a Muslim police officer was remarkable on two levels. First, knowingly or not, the officer had died protecting the very people who had mocked his faith. Second, it highlights the hypocrisy of the attackers and their cause, as neither the Quran nor any Islamic teaching sanctions the use of non-defensive violence, much less against one of their own. It bolsters the argument that the terrorist act was no more than a mob hit by a few unhinged radicals, and that it has nothing whatsoever to do with either Islam or the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. Believing otherwise is as irrational as blaming all Christians for the sexual abuses by a handful of Catholic priests, or demanding an apology from mainland Chinese tourists for the sale of gutter oil and tainted baby formula in China. We should be smart enough not to lump a few bad apples in with a basket of millions.

Who has mocked Islam? Cartoonists or terrorists?

The day after 7 January, now a dividing line in modern French history, I phoned up my friend Alexia, a Paris-based lawyer who used to work in Hong Kong. By the time we spoke, she had already attended a half dozen vigils near her office. She said she would light a white candle and place it on her window sill at home, as had many of her fellow Parisians to pay respect to those who had died doing what they did best. Clearly shaken, Alexia told me that Charlie Hebdo, together with Le Canard Enchaîné, were the two most critical voices in France’s printed media (“Think the Apple Daily*,” Alexia said). She also told me that the slain cartoonists, in particular Stéphane Charbonnier, Cabu and Tignous, were prominent provocateurs in France (“Think Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert,” she said). Their deaths meant more than a tremendous loss of talent, she believed, but a declaration of war on the freedom of speech. And free speech is a right more cherished and jealously guarded in France than probably anywhere else in the world outside the United States.

On the subject of First Amendment rights, the Charlie Hebdo shooting has sparked heated debate on the Internet over the age old question of whether free speech should have limits. The answer is emphatically “yes,” and that’s why it’s against the law in most countries to falsely shout “Fire!” in a movie theater or joke about seeing a bomb when on board a passenger airplane. Many countries have also banned “fighting words” – hate speech that would cause immediate violence, such as uttering incendiary words to provoke an angry crowd. Other than those limited circumstances, it is very difficult to make a case to encroach on the right to express an opinion, however offensive it is to some. Racist or inflammatory speech may be in bad taste, and the proper response should be outrage, condemnation and boycott, all of which happened to Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, after he made an off color remark about women. But to assassinate Mr. Wilson for upsetting the other gender? You would have to be deranged to sign on to that. Free speech aside, how about a right not to be murdered for speaking one’s mind?

Charbonnier has died for free speech

With the help of donations and a trust fund, Charlie Hebdo is expected to print five million copies of their first post-shooting issue next Wednesday, a significant increase over its standard 60,000-copy print run. In the days since 7 January, the offending caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad – the very cause of the terrorist attack – have gone viral on social media and are viewed and shared by more people than ever. In the meantime, publications around the world have put out new cartoons supporting the French magazine and mocking the terrorists. Far from having a chilling effect on political satirists, the Paris shooting seems to have inspired more artists and journalists to exercise their freedom of expression. It is precisely what has happened to the Hong Kong government after it tried to snuff out dissent by removing those giant yellow banners hung by activists demanding universal suffrage: yellow signs in every way, shape and form have cropped up all over the city. Attempts to suppress free speech almost always backfire.

Following the Paris attack, comedian and television host Jon Stewart lamented, “Very few people go into comedy as an act of courage… and it shouldn’t be that way.” His somber remark has made me think about my father, who was a newspaper cartoonist in Hong Kong before he retired in Canada. Even though his drawings tended to be social commentary rather than political satires, it is unfathomable to him that execution by firing squad is now an occupational hazard for people in his trade, or for anyone else who is in the business of using humor to make a point. Stewart is right: it shouldn’t be that way.


*Hours after this article was posted, in the early hours of 12 January, masked attackers threw firebombs at the home and offices of Next Media founder Jimmy Lai (黎智英). Next Media owns, among other things, the Apple Daily, one of the few remaining local newspapers that are critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government. Police investigations of the coordinated attacks are underway.


My cartoonist father
________________________

This article was published in the South China Morning Post under the title "We are Charlie: reflections on the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the free speech debate."

As published in the South China Morning Post

Popular Posts

Book Review: "Generation HK" 書評:《香港世代》

Unpacking the young generation in Hong Kong is a tall order, not least because a singular, archetypical “Hong Kong youth” does not exist. The cohort is as diverse and divergent as it comes, from socioeconomic background and upbringing to education and exposure to the wider world, to values, ideals and aspirations. It defies stereotypes and generalisations.

Ben Bland, a British correspondent for The Financial Times, is in a unique position to take on that ambitious project. Whereas Bland’s extensive experience reporting in Asia—including stints in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar—has given him a broad field of view, his relatively short tenure in Hong Kong—just over two years—allows him to look at its people through a long-range lens.
It is that unadulterated objectivity and his unquenched curiosity that make Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow a discerning and refreshing read. Released last summer under Penguin Book’s inaugural “Hong Kong series” to mark the 20…

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice.
The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin-starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants, serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds.

While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents and visitors alike. Whatever your budget and palate…

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

Who is Agnes Chow? 誰是周庭?

It was roughly six months ago when Nathan Law, chairman of Demosisto, lost his job. He and five other pro-democracy lawmakers had strayed from the prescribed oath during the swearing-in ceremony, and were ousted from the Legislative Council (LegCo) after Beijing issued a reinterpretation of the oath-taking provisions in the Basic Law. Many saw the unseating of six democratically-elected lawmakers, dubbed “Oathgate” in the local press, as a calculated political move to purge the legislature of the opposition.

The time to fill some of these vacated seats is finally upon us. Four by-elections will be held simultaneously on March 11, in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, New Territories East and for the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape sector.
Barely old enough to run, 21-year-old Agnes Chow (周庭) of pro-democracy party Demosisto has thrown her hat into the ring hoping to win back Law’s Hong Kong Island seat. Her decision to run has not come without a price: she has deferred …

As You LIKE It 人人讚好

Social media are the greatest invention of the 21st Century, not least because they provide ready fillers for life’s many dull moments. The virtual world is the perfect antidote to our real life drudgery. Bring on the mile-long taxi line, the interminable Monday morning meeting and even the deadly silent treatment from an upset spouse. All we need to do is whip out our phones, drop our heads and, with a flick of the thumb, wade through stream after mind-numbing stream of news feeds and tweets. In the parallel universe of restaurant check-ins, vacation selfies and baby videos, we are the celebrities and we are the groupies. No one wants to admit it, but many of us have started to reorganize our lives based on how the status update would look on our carefully manicured timeline.

It is therefore all the more important to observe proper online decorum and protect our virtual image. The idea that anything goes in Cyberspace, or that a random post is as consequence-free as tossing a bottl…

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally prote…