Throughout the world, free speech has come to be seen as a right of the people, one which should be protected by the government. Countries in which people do not have the right to speak their minds, such as North Korea, are criticized worldwide for holding back the thoughts of their populace and suppressing the voices of their people. However, it now seems as if dictatorships and undemocratic regimes are no longer the strongest enemies of free speech.
The extent to which artists can express themselves has nearly always been based on whether their own governments allow or prevent people from speaking their mind, but in the wake of attacks made on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and Sony Pictures in response to their public critiques, it appears that it is now the fear of international retaliation by the groups being criticized that is most threatening to the reach of free speech.
Threats of this kind can be traced back to 1988 when author Salman Rushdie, a British author hailing from a Sunni Muslim family, published “The Satanic Verses.” The title of the book referenced several verses in the original Koran that allowed the worship of idols which were later withdrawn by Muhammad when he claimed they had been spoken to him by the devil pretending to be God. In the book, the dream sequences of one of the main characters follow the story of the so-called ‘satanic verses’ and suggest in the end that Muhammad never gave up his old pagan Gods.
The book was banned in many predominantly Muslim countries, but across the globe bookstores carrying the novel were bombed (including two in Berkeley), the Japanese translator of the novel was killed and a fatwa, or religious mandate, calling for Rushdie’s death was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.
Khomeini was the leader of the country at the time and a central figure of Islam worldwide. Rushdie was forced into hiding for over a decade due to the issuing of the fatwa, which still stands today with a $3.3 million bounty for those willing to undertake it.
At the time, the controversy over “The Satanic Verses” unraveled as surreally as the dreams the book depicted, but now the threat of retaliation is all too common.
In just the past few weeks it has become clear that people are not necessarily being prevented from sharing their thoughts, but they are increasingly attacked for releasing them; what we need is no longer freedom of speech from censorship by laws and governments, but protection of the speakers from the people who take offense from their work.
The fact is that the critiques of Islam, among other major religions, set forth by Charlie Hebdo magazine had already been published, and the assassination of Kim Jong Un in The Interview had already been filmed by the time both companies were attacked.
The writers of both The Interview and Charlie Hebdo were never kept from creating their critiques, it just so happens that one group of writers was attacked before their material was released to the public, and one group was attacked after.
French President François Hollande came forward on the day of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and affirmed France’s commitment to protecting people’s right to excercise free speech. More than anything, this is what should be required of governments.
Charlie Hebdo had received threats for years, and regardless of whether the editors of the magazine saw such threats as a real danger, it should have been the job of the French Government to treat the threats seriously.
On the other hand, Sony Pictures took the protection of people into its own hands when the company pulled the film from theaters.
In this case, the threats that were leveled against Sony and those who watched The Interview were handled too personally by the company.
By pulling the film Sony deprived its audience of the sort of commentary necessary to expose the farcical attitudes professed by those leveling the threats.
President Obama and multiple other figures in Washington have come forward following the hacking of Sony saying that by pulling The Interview, the company only allowed its attackers to rid the company of its freedom of speech.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is that free speech is a right which must be protected, regardless of the tastes of those who are exposed to it.
Satirists such as the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo occupy an important place in society where they sacrifice a certain amount of their credibility in exchange for the freedom to point out and write about the absurdities of our world.
Nobody should be kept from stating his or her opinions, and it should not be the norm for writers and artists to fear for their safety when they do speak their mind.
In the increasing number of countries where writers, cartoonists, filmmakers and artists have the freedom from government persecution to share their criticisms of society it must be the responsibility of the government to protect them against the consequences.