Charlie Hebdo: We stand united with our French colleagues to defend a free Press
Few people will disagree with the description given by French President Francois Hollande of the gun attack on a Paris-based satirical magazine’s office which left 12 people dead and several more critically injured. He called it an act of extreme barbarity.
Witnesses told how the gunmen cold-bloodedly executed a wounded policeman as he lay on the pavement near the offices pleading for his life. Nor was any mercy shown to the staff of the magazine, Charlie Hebdo, who were slain throughout the building.
The attack bears all the hallmarks of an atrocity carried out by Islamic fanatics, both in the chillingly effective way it was conducted and in the target chosen.
The magazine was attacked by Islamists in the past after publishing a cartoon mocking the Prophet Mohammed. But the magazine, carrying on the insolent and sometimes offensive tradition of satirical media in France, also mocked other organised religions on a regular basis as well as politicians, governments and even other countries.
Yesterday’s massacre was not just an attack on Charlie Hebdo but on Press freedom. In any democracy the freedom of the media to criticise, mock, offend or satirise should be defended to the last.
We have seen that freedom challenged many times in this country by both politicians and fanatics. This newspaper was bombed in 1976 by the IRA but that did not prevent it publishing again the next day and continuing to denounce violence from all quarters. Fanatics, no matter what their cause, can never be allowed to undermine an essential freedom.
Other attacks have been much more insidious as politicians have tried to increase their influence over the media in the UK, particularly after the phone hacking scandal.
But the atrocity yesterday in Paris has sent shockwaves not only through France but through all Western countries.
For any extremists to calmly walk into a magazine’s office and kill anyone they came across brings terror to a new level. These terrorist groups are beyond any reason but cunningly chose targets which will give them maximum publicity and ratchet up the levels of fear.
It is essential that the authorities in France, assisted if necessary by the intelligence services of neighbouring countries, track down and apprehend those responsible as quickly as possible. The longer they remain at liberty the greater will be public apprehension of a possible repeat attack, not necessarily on the Press but in any public place.
However, in this instance the freedom of the Press is at stake. There is no doubt that the media will respond as it always does when attacked and that is with renewed vigour to denounce those guilty of violence and to lay bare the hideous ideology of those groups.
A free Press stimulates, provokes and sustains the essential debates of a democratic society. Whatever its critics say, an unfree Press would be much more harmful to societal well-being than even the occasional excess of a free Press.
That is why today the Belfast Telegraph is proud to say: “Je Suis Charlie.”