Freedom in a hall of mirrors

Here’s my piece from the latest Edge Review on free speech and the importance of satire, in the wake of the Charle Hebdo attack in Paris.  The entire Jan 16 issue of The Edge Review is devoted to free speech, repression and political cartooning in Southeast Asia, so I invite you all to have a look — download the app and subscribe!  And also, make sure to see my interview on this topic with Al Jazeera; in case you missed it, the link is:
Here’s my piece.  Please leave me your comments below.
Inside Edge
By Keith B. Richburg
Freedom in a hall of mirrors  (Copyright ©The Edge Review)
As with most people, my reaction to the news of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, targeting journalists and cartoonists, was shock, then horror, then outrage.
For me, a personal element made my anger all the more visceral. I began my career in journalism as the political cartoonist for The Michigan Daily, the University of Michigan student newspaper, where the targets of my acerbic caricatures included US presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and the entire university football team (which once became enraged over one of my cartoons). So I appreciate the vital importance of cartooning to the political discourse.
Thirty years later, long having given up cartooning for writing, I became the Paris correspondent for The Washington Post, living there at the time of the 9/11 attacks in the US. My apartment in the Marais was just a few minutes walk from the Charlie Hebdo offices. So last week’s brutal murders touched a particular raw nerve in me.
But I also spent more than 15 years as a correspondent in Asia, mostly Southeast Asia and China, and I learned early on that countries all have their particular sensibilities. In Thailand, for example, you don’t joke about, even write about, the king or the royal family. In Malaysia, a Canadian journalist friend spent a month in jail for “contempt of the judiciary” after writing about favoritism shown to the wife of an appeals court judge.
There are many such instances where the American and Western idea of freedom of speech – including the right to lampoon those in power – runs smack up against Asian sensibilities, with the region’s traditions of deference, paternalistic rule, and a media largely seen as existing to serve the interests of the state. It’s a conflict that has long existed, but is becoming more acute in our hyper-connected world. An offending column or cartoon in Stockholm or Melbourne is now seen instantly in Singapore and Malaysia.
Thus, a satirical movie about a bumbling American talk show host and his producer dispatched to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un provoked immediate outrage in Pyongyang.
Recall also the over-the-top reaction in 2013, when American comedian and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel asked a children’s panel on his show how they would solve America’s problems, including the US$1.3 trillion debt to China. “Shoot cannons all the way over and kill everyone in China,” one grinning six-year-old replied. China was not amused, and demanded a “sincere” apology.
Kimmel’s network, ABC Television, did apologize, multiple times, and even forced the comedian to drop the regular “kids’ table” feature. It might have been a free speech issue. But the network’s parent company, the Walt Disney Co., has lucrative business interests in China – the new US$4.4 billion Shanghai Disney theme park due to open this year, and continued access for Disney movies to China’s market, now the largest international source of box office revenue for American films.
It seems the Magic Kingdom kowtows to the Middle Kingdom. In fact, Hollywood now routinely tweaks films before they are released in China, to avoid giving offense.
This conflict between Western-backed notions of free speech and Asian sensibilities only looks set to intensify as more of Asia’s authoritarian countries liberalise their systems and as local media continue assertively pushing for more freedom to report, investigate, and – yes – to lampoon and satirise.
But before Westerners too quickly criticize Asian countries for being intolerant to free speech, we ought to first pause and hold up a mirror. Westerners are not free speech purists.
France has some of the world’s toughest laws against hate speech, making it a crime to deny the Holocaust or to insult Muslims, gays, the handicapped or any other minority group. In Germany, calling any group “freeloaders” could lead to a criminal sentence – and, of course, Nazi symbols are illegal.
In the US, it’s easy to make a satirical movie imagining the farcical assassination of the North Korean leader. But anyone trying to make a film considered racist, anti-Semitic or anti-gay would be ostracized from polite society. Even the ubiquitous “N-word” is becoming more taboo.
There is, however, a crucial difference. People spewing hate speech indeed should be ostracised. If satire goes too far, as it often does, the satirist will be rejected and marginalised by the audience.
But no one should be jailed for what they write or draw or be subjected to threats or fatwas. And no one should ever have to pay with their life.