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News Reports

When absolute freedom of speech meets threshold of tolerance

So 12 people, including two policemen, at the office of a French satirical magazine have died, shot by two armed men one of whom was known to the authorities for his nutty views.

The reaction in France and worldwide was spontaneous – who, after all, would not condemn killing? There’s no sound from militant groups which use Islam as their banner either, even though reports said the two terrorists invoked Allah during their shooting spree. (Note: I did not say militant Muslim groups because it seems too crazy a description and a little insulting to the religion to have its name pinned on people who kill people.)

I am upset at what happened to my former French counterparts. But I confess that I can’t help tut-tutting as well. The things that Charlie Hebdo got up to with its depictions of Islam, other religions and politicians – more like denigration than satire – would never see light of day in Singapore. So finely-tuned is the journalistic antenna here, even though years have passed since the Maria Hertogh riots were sparked by the publication of a newspaper photograph of the girl taken from her Muslim foster-parents, kneeling in a church.

Race and religion were (or are still?) subjects most journalists we would rather not touch with a 10-foot pole unless it is to document the various festivals. Which is why some people felt some consternation when the G broke its own unwritten mantra of dissociating race and religion from national life. Like when it encouraged the setting-up of community self-help groups and started releasing examination results of the various races. The justification was pragmatic: people in the same community would do more to help and accept help from their own kind. (BTW, did you know you can’t touch on race and religion in Hong Lim Park?)

It became so that one American consultant remarked to me a few years ago that it is wonder that religion and religious issues were not widely reported in the media given the extent of worship here with its mosques, temples and churches. Tentatively, I set up a religion “beat’’ in my old newspaper. Tentatively, I say, because I wasn’t sure what would count as religious news in a secular paper. How to avoid stepping on some religion’s toes if there was too much coverage of the happenings in another religion? How to get around accusations that individual journalists or the paper as a whole might be religiously prejudiced?

I digress. Back to Paris…

If Charlie Hebdo did what it did here in Singapore, I can just imagine the weight of the G bearing down on it, with accusations of threatening the social fabric of this multi-racial, multi-religious society. Any combination of the Penal Code, Sedition Act and Internal Security Act would have been invoked. Licences stand to be revoked. Apologies, retractions and reparations would be demanded. That would be the State reacting.

What about the people here? I think they too would agree with the State action, because we simply can’t conceive of being rude to another religion in such a public space. Sure, words have been exchanged between some church groups and civil society types in recent time, but there have remained, well, online and among individuals. No broadcasting or publishing institution would devote its work mainly to making fun of what is sacred to some groups. Not even the satirical online sites operating here; politicians are the preferred target.

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I look at the French and I think about how different their society is. It prides itself on freedom of expression. Its own politicians have tried to get Charlie Hebdo to tone down – but in the way a parent would chide a child. It gave police protection even after the newsroom was firebombed for its issue with the prophet as “guest editor” in 2012. Here, it probably would have been closed down. Even in the United States, that bastion of freedom of speech, the White House spokesman then wondered about the “judgment’’ behind decisions to publish offensive cartoons.

Of the massacre, Financial Times columnist Tony Barber wrote that the magazine exercised “editorial foolishness.” He went on: “If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech.” Of course, “this is not in the slightest to condone the murderers… it is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications… which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.”

(BTW, FT clarified later that this was an opinion piece, not its editorial. Interesting huh?)

In Malaysia, former premier Dr Mahathir Mohammad said: “I do not support the killings. But we must be mindful that when we purposely provoke others, we cannot be sure how they will react.’’

Charlie’s supporters can say that it pokes fun at the Catholic church and the Jews too, so why should it not be even-handed with Islam? In other words, why is the threshold of tolerance so low when it comes to Islam? And must the magazine deviate from editorial policy because of “sensitivities’’ of a particular group? Among the responses advanced is that besides Islam, other religions are not do devoutly or obsessively held by their followers, particularly in Europe.

The French might want to consider that its own social dynamics have changed over the years, with the advent of immigrants of other religions particularly from North Africa. The French might have held firm to absolute freedom of speech as a cherished principle all along, but this might not be the case for the “new’’ French. With increasing self-radicalisation among the Muslims in France (they form the biggest European contingent which have gone to fight the cause of the Islamic State), adhering to principle of absolute freedom of speech might well be like waving a red flag at a bull. With consequences that are dire for the rest…

I guess people will now ask me for my own bottomline…

Here goes: Killing cannot be condoned. It is the most extreme form of extremism. There are other ways to seek redress, particularly in a liberal democracy. Go protest in front of the newspaper office. Bombard the editor with letters. Get a petition up. Tell people not to buy or subscribe to it. Set up a magazine to counter Charlie Hebdo. If you are living in a country where the value of freedom of speech has been forged over the years, then try to live by it. Or work at changing the value system to include greater respect for religion.

As a Singaporean citizen living here, I value peace and civility towards each other, regardless of race, language, religion, economic class and sexual orientation. And I believe this to be the case for most people. If there are some restrictions on speech about religion to preserve social harmony, I can live with it. Religion is not worth killing over.

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Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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