Belfast Telegraph

Charlie Hebdo: Why freedom of the Press has always come at a deadly price

The attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that left 12 slain has shocked the world but, as Malachi O'Doherty explains, journalists have always died in the name of truth-telling - and today's media, with the rise of the freelancer, leaves many more exposed than ever

The Ford Transit van moved into the newspaper office loading bay at 4.15pm. This was a busy time, when bound bundles of the evening edition were being sent out. It was a chilly autumn evening. Two men leapt from the van with guns in their hands and opened fire on the workers who scattered for cover as the gunshots were amplified horrifically in the sheltered space.

At first only one man was injured before the attackers fled, rushing through a house and dumping their guns in the back yard before getting over the wall and away.

But they had left a bomb, a big one.

Joe Paton, a stereotyper in the Belfast Telegraph, thought he was safe returning to his locker room just over the loading bay. He wasn't.

The bomb went off below him and rubble from the blast piled onto him. At first it seemed he would live. He was rushed up Donegall Street onto the Crumlin Road and into the Mater Hospital. There he had a leg amputated.

He died four days later.

At the time this was just another grim episode in the pattern of the Troubles in 1976, one that would set the pattern for more killing. Joe Paton was killed by the IRA. The sister of one of the men convicted of the killing would later be shot by the UVF.

These details come from the aptly named book Lost Lives.

But today Joe Paton is a reminder, among many others, that the Press is always in danger during wars and conflicts.

All the major newspapers in Belfast were bombed. Many journalists were threatened and lived in fear.

The Sunday World's Martin O'Hagan was shot dead by the LVF in Lurgan in 2001.

A photographer, Niall Carson, was shot in the leg during rioting in Short Strand in Belfast just three years ago.

Journalists are in greater danger around the world today than they have been in past conflicts. Some of them, like Carson, were attacked, probably not specifically because they were journalists, but because they had put themselves in a dangerous place to do their work.

Others were killed or injured by forces which wanted to silence them.

The staff of Charlie Hebdo might have been safe in the centre of a European city, far from the wars of the Middle East, if they had not challenged jihadist Islamists and their censorious barbarity.

Joe Paton, who died aged 64, might have lived into old age if he had not worked for a newspaper that had offended the IRA, though he faced the ordinary dangers of life in Belfast in 1976 and another bomb might have found him elsewhere.

Martin O'Hagan would have gone home to his bed that night in 2001 if he had not written articles that had outraged the thugs of the LVF.

Yet, the Northern Ireland Troubles were relatively safe for journalists. Republicans developed ways of using the media, by publishing their own paper, which came under attack too, and through a sophisticated Press relations operation.

The IRA would establish its own Press centre, run from GHQ.

Loyalists would always be more crass in their interactions with the media, more frequently threatening reporters and photographers, though many journalists who worked through those times will have been put in a corner and spoken to by a thug. Sometimes that thug was a British soldier.

More insidious were the private briefings given against journalists in which they were dismissed as agents or party activists.

And much of that experience is now forgotten, as Joe Paton is forgotten and not properly remembered for having been a victim specifically of violence against the media.

In the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the slaughter of journalists and cartoonists, all media people have to think of their safety now and the parameters within which they will work.

The first thing to remember, perhaps, is that we are not unique. Two policemen died in that attack in Paris. Their lives were as valuable as those of the famous cartoonists. Joe Paton is not singled out as a martyr for Press freedom because the way in which he died was routine then. Barmen and grocers died in the same way.

But the violence directed at the media has a purpose, which is to intimidate and silence those who analyse and criticise what the violent movements do.

And when fanatics come to kill, journalists find themselves at war, not just reporting on a war, but actually engaged in one as combatants, their words and images being the weapons in their defence and for the assertion of their arguments.

This is complicated.

There have been times when the media recoiled from danger and changed its ways. After the first major cartoons crisis, when protesters rallied in European cities and people died in attacks in the Middle East in outrage at a Danish newspaper publishing cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, most of the European media responded with caution.

Though they reported on and discussed the story, they did not publish the images which were being protested against, so most of us could have had little idea what the fuss was about.

And we rely on the media to do its job and explain these things.

There are other types of image which the media will not show, of course, violent or explicitly sexual images, and increasingly, images of police officers at work, or of children. So routines of discretion are already in place.

But must these apply to representations of a man regarded as a prophet by one-and-a-half billion people? Perhaps they should, though the case has to be made in terms in which it can be understood, not through murder.

When a music video by DJ Wilkinson featured a love scene filmed in the Good Shepherd Church on the Ormeau Road in Belfast last June, priests protested and the scene was edited out. And much of the media declined to show us that picture, too.

Which will prove to some that the media is docile, to others that peaceful protest and making your case get better results than violence does.

The question for many in the media now is whether they should present images which offend Muslims simply to demonstrate their freedom to do so.

Perhaps the only way to defend those who assert the right to free expression on this is to join them, en masse, and not to leave them exposed as an identifiable minority. More likely the institutions of the media will veer towards caution and, as ever, it will be the small guy, the loner, the freelancer, who will fight on the front line.

But, in reality, journalists are more exposed than ever.

The whole industry is being casualised and is shifting towards the internet.

Many journalists killed last year were self-motivated freelancers, empowered by the new technology to sell to media which won't risk their own people in those places. But that shift in the character of the media makes it too big and diverse to be silenced. Charlie Hebdo had an office with an on-street address. Web-based journalism can be delivered on the run, as jihadists themselves know, being experts at it.

It isn't just the courage of journalists and the moral commitment of the West to free speech that will defeat them. We might be on shakier ground if that was what we relied on. They are already outflanked. Yet more brave, outspoken people and diligent workers like Joe Paton will die before this is over.

Belfast Telegraph


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