(Published in the Malay Mail Online 14 January 2015)
Have you seen the front cover of today’s Charlie Hebdo?
This first edition, published after last Wednesday's horrific terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine that left 12 dead, shows a caricature of Prophet Muhammad shedding a tear while holding up a placard saying “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) with the headline “Tout est pardonné” (All is forgiven).
The cartoon was drawn by Luz (Renald Luzier) who did not suffer the same fate as his colleagues because he was late arriving at the office.
A copy of the front cover was released in Paris early yesterday, and in a tearful and emotional interview on Tuesday Luz told reporters that: “I drew a prophet crying, I wrote 'all is forgiven' and I cried.”
He cried for the loss of his workmates, cried because of the assault on the freedom of speech that the words Je suis Charlie have become so synonymous with, cried because of his nightmare-filled sleep he has had since the attack.
I have the greatest respect for what is left of Charlie Hebdo’s staff, currently operating out of the offices of the left-wing daily newspaper Libération, for being able to get out of bed in the morning after the traumas of the past week, let alone have the mental focus to produce another edition of their magazine.
But what else were they going to do? Keep quiet and let the terrorists win? Three million copies have been printed, as opposed to the usual weekly run of 60,000, and it will be published in 16 different languages.
People here have rushed to pre-order their copy of the eight-page edition. Yesterday, the chap in front of me at my local newsagents dejectedly left after being told by the lady behind the counter that the Charlie Hebdo magazine will be sold strictly on a “First-come, first-serve basis Wednesday morning.”
What do I think about the cartoon? Well, it’s more muted in its shock value than others I have seen online. It’s still irreverent — daringly featuring the Prophet Muhammad, the reason why the magazine was targeted by Islamic extremists in the first place — but also melancholic.
The latter will resound with many in France and beyond. The former will serve to provoke. Which is why many news outlets, including the Malay Mail Online, have had to make a tricky decision in the last 24 hours on whether to republish this front cover for their readers to view today.
The BBC Online, when I last checked, hadn’t, although they did apparently show it in passing during a newspaper review on Newsnight. The New York Times has also decided not to carry the image; perhaps fearing copycat reprisals? The French newspapers Le Monde and Libération have said they will, and I am sure many others here will follow suit.
Interestingly, and not unexpected, the left-leaning and pioneering Guardian, UK has. They did so early Tuesday morning but at the same time carrying a notice typed in large bold font “Warning: this article contains the image of the magazine cover, which some may find offensive.”
In any healthy, functioning democracy, people absolutely have the right to free speech and to expect a vibrant free press. As a matter of public interest, people want to understand what all the global fuss around Charlie Hebdo is about, and make up their own minds whether to agree with what has been said or done.
I personally struggle with today’s front cover. But, out of deference to those killed this time last week, I shall save my reasons why for my next column.
Instead, I shall leave you with a quote from the famous 18th century French philosopher Voltaire, who said this of the freedom of expression:
“I disapprove of what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Correction: For all those Voltaire fans out there, my cursory check (at 3am today) of the quote : "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" proved incorrect in the cold light of day. It wasn't the French philosopher Voltaire who coined this phrase, but Britain's Evelyn Beatrice Hall. Hall used it in her biography on Voltaire (The Friend's of Voltaire 1907) as an illustration of Voltaire's beliefs... Bravo to those who spotted it.