Pic: Heathcliff OMalley/ The Telegraph
“I would rather die standing than live on my knees.”
This is one of many poignant phrases by Charlie Hebdo’s editor Stéphane Charbonnier which has been widely circulated in the social media after the deadly attack at the French satirical weekly magazine’s office that killed 12 people including 10 journalists (and cartoonists).
The vicious attack two weeks ago has focused attention on not only how terror could never be justified in the face of dissenting views but more importantly the price of standing up for freedom of speech and expression.
“Nobody has the licence to kill by any reasons. We must respect the rights of the cartoonists and freedom of expression,” political cartoonist Zunar told Malaysian Digest in
In a Skype interview recently.Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar (née Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque)
Zunar, whose real name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque had earlier condemned the killing of his fellow comrades at Charlie Hebdo office in Paris and proposed that January 7, the day of the black tragedy be remembered as “World Cartoonist Day” in honour of Stéphane and cartoonists Cabu, Wollinski and Tignous.
For Malaysia, while this hedious attack, dubbed as France’s “9/11” will always be a black page in history and should be fulminated, this incident has brought about a more important question: How do you draw the line between freedom of expression and blasphemy?
Or rather should there be a line at all, in other words, should blasphemy be tolerated?
After all, blasphemy is ‘the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God, to religious or holy persons or things, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable’, well… the definition speaks for itself.
In a multi-racial and multi-religious society such as Malaysia, surely this is not a good idea.
On the other hand, freedom of speech and expression are the hallmark of democracy, including through satire and humor – in various forms including cartoons. By saying “no, you cannot do this because it insults a particular religion” – you are also indirectly impinging the rights to speech and expression.
In the crossfire between these two, maybe the only thing we can agree on is that one, it is a “sticky” issue and that perhaps this is the perfect example of notable scholar Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilization” hypothesis (conflict based on cultural differences rather than ideological one).
Still, the incident which sparked protests around the world put the spotlight on the terrible risks faced by people like Charlie Hebdo cartoonists – and are still facing just through the tip of their pen.
“His Pen Is Loaded”
Charlie Hebdo, which uses satire especially in the forms of cartoons are not the only publications that are provocative and controversial.
“The tragedy of French cartoonists is a high-profile case but there are many smaller-scales Charlie Hebdo out there around the world such as renowned Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, Prageeth Eknaligoda and many more.
“As cartoonists, we must create an impact through our art depending on our target. For me, I want to take risks through my cartoons, and I am ready to face the challenges,” Zunar said.
Zunar, is no stranger to living his life under the microscope – with constant scrutiny by the government and threats by various legal means to silence him. He has been investigated twice under the Sedition Act for his controversial cartoons, investigated for “Classified Crime” under the Printing Presses and Publication Act 1084 (PPPA) and detained in lock-up. Seven of his cartoon books were banned and more than 1000 books were confiscated from his office. He was even detained for two days.
Commenting on the Charlie Hebdo case, Zunar, who had lost two long court battles with the Malaysian government on banning of his publications and for unlawful detention said that freedom of expression must be a priority.
“We cannot compromise on freedom of expression and speech. In fact, every person must be free. In the context of a cartoonist, we need to talk about the content. The cartoonist’s freedom must be respected.
“Yet, when we talked about the freedom of expression in the form of provocation, for example the cartoon about Muhammad, there are consequences,” he said.
The 52-year-old cartoonist also said that when one “launched” such provocation, they must also accept that blasphemous cartoons will receive reaction, adding: “its fine (if they want to publish such cartoons) but Muslims would not be happy with such cartoons and we can agree that they have the rights to that view,”
What is wrong with the reaction of the Charlie Hebdo incident that many made “them” a hero.
“Before the incident, nobody knew who they are. Now, after what happened, everybody is talking about them and some Muslims made them a hero,” he said adding this will add a chain effect; other cartoonists might want to replicate this, the question is: “Do they dare to take the risk up to that level?”
Still, while saying that the issue is the reaction by Muslims more than others, he stressed that terror (as in the Charlie Hebdo incident) is unacceptable.
“Instead of violence, Muslims authorities and cartoonists should ‘address’ the content (for example the insult on the prophet) with open debates and challenge these provocation and show the true image of Islam (as a religion of peace, tolerance and moderation) through cartoons,” he explained, adding that very few artwork ever done by Muslim artists to portray good image of Prophet Mohammad, the last one that he remembered was in 1979, which is a film by a Syrian American, Moustapha Al Akkad.
“I wish issues involving other cartoonists around the world should be addressed as well. It is good if people from the East and the West can unite and condemn the ‘attack’ on cartoonists in other countries, like they have on the French cartoonists’ issue. Failure to reprimand oppressive governments will provide more power for these governments to be more arrogant.
“Let the people judge the cartoonist point of view. This is very important. Even Prophet Muhammad himself, when faced with criticisms and challenges, try to explain his position. With ‘ignorance’ (kejahilan), the better approach is to explain,” he said.
Balancing Freedom and Responsibility
While defending the western world’s cherished ideal of liberty is laudable, in Malaysia, a country with various ethnic backgrounds and religions – and a Muslim-majority country, it is almost hard to imagine how this ideal would fit.
It is also evident that in Malaysia, freedom of speech and expression has always had restrains and in some cases suppressed completely. The reality is there are many prohibitions in these categories.
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) 2014 report on human rights said that freedom of expression “took a heavy toll” this year with 44 people being investigated, charged or convicted under the Sedition Act 1948 including opposition politicians, activists, lawyers and academics.
Our press freedom also took a heavy beating last year, where the press freedom index (PFI) has dropped to a historic low at 147 out of 180 countries.
So, it is not surprising that Malaysian government has also suspended newspapers that published blasphemous cartoons, for example the Chinese-language newspaper Berita Petang Sarawak and Guan Ming Daily in 2006. In the same year, the government has even indefinitely shut down the regional newspaper Sarawak Tribune after it reprinted controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Part-time cartoonist and blogger Irwan Abdul Rahman, 41, who blogs under the pseudonym “Hassan Skodeng”, had expressed a different stand compared to his fellow cartoonist as his opinion is that total freedom is unwise.
Irwan Abdul Rahman. Pic: Facebook
On Charlie Hebdo’s case, while saying no violence is justified, he cited the incident is one of the ways the public can “respond” and said: “I am all for creative expression but bear in mind, it is for public consumption and open to reaction from the public, as not everybody can take things with a grain of salt.
“We have to be mindful when we create content. The challenge here is to be more creative with limited freedom.”
Irwan said the sensibility of what’s blasphemous should be up to the content creator.
“In the end, it boils down to the basic sensibility of the creator and the sensitivity of the readers or listeners,” he explained.
The blogger, who was charged by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) in relations of his posting relating to Tenaga Nasional Berhad on his blog on March 25, 2010 under Section 233 (1) (a) of the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998 but was discharged a year later.
Irwan’s blog, nose4news.wordpress.com a portal dedicated to humorous satirical news pieces in the vein of popular US website, The Onion.
He said that satire and humorous pieces in online mediums, for example blogs or online cartoons should also be held to the same benchmark as the print media.
“For me, your behaviour online should reflect your behaviour offline. You should be able to take real world consequences.
“Still, you can be more impactful by saying less. You dont have to be too provocative to get your point across. The key is to strike that balance,” he said.
Double Standard: The Mirror Works Both Ways
Another question we can ask is the double standard in the depiction of certain religions that is blasphemous in nature.
In the West, Islam is vilified and sometimes demonized while cartoons mocking the Jews are called anti-Semitic. In contrast, for the Muslim world, perhaps cartoons mocking Israelis, their country and Jews are tolerable but not the insults on Islam.
Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) senior lecturer and political analyst Associate Professor Sivamurugan Pandian
Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) senior lecturer and political analyst Associate Professor Sivamurugan Pandian told Malaysian Digest: “Nowadays, it is clear that there is a double standard for Muslims. The western world tries to portray Muslims as a threat, with the IS issue.
“We cannot deny that this (double standard exist regardless of ethnicity and religion). However, in Malaysia, it is still under control,” he said, adding that we should learn from the France tragedy.
On the other hand, Suaram director Dr Kua Kia Soong does not believe there is a lesson to be learnt for Malaysia in relation to the Charlie Hebdo incident.
“I have never seen such insensitivities here in Malaysia. I don’t think it is an issue for us, .Dr Kua quipped”
Suaram director Dr Kua Kia Soong
What is clear here is that the mirror works both ways. The majority in a country reflects what is acceptable in a society and what is considered a blasphemy.
Zunar suggested that censoring what is blasphemous should be the responsibility of a publication and that diversity of opinion (and freedom of speech/ expression) should be defended.
“For example, Charlie Hebdo has a right to censor what goes on in their publication but other publications can publish it. At least there is a differing view in the same type of media.
“In Malaysia, however, nobody is allowed to say differently. Generally, political cartoonists in Malaysia are very nasty towards Obama and Israel but they kept quiet about our Prime Minister and his wife.
“Clearly, there is a double standard here. We are allowed to talk or sketch about Gaza but will the view of an Israeli who lives in Gaza be published?” he said.
Yet, he also agrees that double standard is everywhere, adding: “It’s also very subjective. If you don’t agree with one thing, you can take action but what kind of actions, should always be open to debate”.
Freedom of Speech vs Blasphemy: Are We Ready For Absolute Freedom?
Discounting France’s rich satirical culture, in most countries where freedom of speech and expression are under serious threat, humor and satire are usually a way to get around draconian laws, censorship and even self-censorship in the Press.
Malaysia is without a doubt where this applies. Zunar said: “Generally, Malaysians are very scared to confront the government but when it comes to humor, they make fun of the government. An example is the ‘kangkung’ issue. The joke is a protest but for me that is not enough.”
Whilst Zunar stood behind “why pinch when you can punch” principle, Sivamurugan is under the impression that Malaysians have yet to reach a level of maturity to talk about the sort of freedom experienced in the West.
“Unless we have reached that level, Malaysia cannot have absolute freedom. It has to be a guided freedom that takes into account the sensitivity of all ethnic groups. We must have respect, understanding and tolerance.
We cannot let freedom of speech and expression be suppressed – and censorship is an ugly word – but at the end of the day any content creators – including cartoonists and media should also be responsible and accountable for what they put out there.
Ultimately, Charlie Hebdo reminded us that sometimes it is not always black and white – and the danger for insisting so could be very costly.
As aptly observed by Randa, Abdel-Fattah, an Australian Muslim writer of Palestinian and Egyptian parentage, she wrote that “[t]here is nothing “free” about free speech. All speech has a price and the currency is privilege”.
source : MalaysianDigest.com