Thursday, January 8, 2015

Cartoonists and terrorists: Why free speech matters

The terrorist attack in Paris on Wednesday, Jan. 7, was a terrifying assault not just on the offices of a satirical news magazine, but on free speech and journalism. Twelve people died in the shooting massacre, four of them editorial cartoonists.

Charlie Hebdo, which was described by Drew Rougier-Chapman of Cartoonists Rights Network International as “a cross between Mad Magazine, Playboy cartoons and ‘The Daily Show,’” was founded by cartoonists and journalists.

What relevance could this event in Paris possibly have to us here in North America?

A great deal, actually. As a press release from the Society of Professional Journalists put it, “This is a barbaric, appalling attempt to stifle press freedom. Extremists feel emboldened to attack and kill journalists anywhere in the world for lampooning religion or reporting on political and governmental activities.” You can read the entire statement by the SPJ president here.

Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the Iranian Opposition, condemned the attack yesterday. In an “it’s a small world after all” moment, I saw her name and remembered my own frightening experience. I’ve been a copy editor at Land Line Magazine for seven years, but for 17 years I was an editor at a national newspaper syndicate.

I edited at least one syndicated newspaper column in 1994 about Mrs. Rajavi, who had become president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran in 1993, and who lived in Paris. Shortly after the column was published in newspapers nationwide, I received a phone call.

A man who claimed to be with an Iranian resistance movement was furious that such a story had run. He was furious that we wrote about an Iranian woman leader. I can’t remember exactly what he said (it’s been 20 years now), but he had a heavy accent. He said I was in danger and that he knew I had children (which I did, 9- and 7-year-old sons).

I remember that it sounded like a death threat. I was shaken and talked to my editorial director, who strongly advised me to call the FBI.

The FBI agent I talked to reassured me, saying it was probably a bluff designed to frighten me (it did) and that the man probably lived out of the country or on the East Coast. The man was unlikely to travel to Kansas City to threaten an editor and was making sure we never wrote about Maryam Rajavi again (we didn’t). The agent did, however, say to call the FBI back immediately if I got another call.

Such threats have an incredibly chilling effect. And, believe it or not, cartoonists are particularly threatening to “true believers” because their art and words have such a powerful effect.

One example is the “Doonesbury” comic strip, which has had many controversies in its 40-plus year history. In 1985, Garry Trudeau drew a series of strips depicting Frank Sinatra alongside famous mobsters. Trudeau based his strips on a soon-to-be-published (and unauthorized) book titled “His Way.” Sinatra’s lawyers wrote an angry letter, threatening a lawsuit against the author and against the syndicate. I recall that at least one syndicate person had to travel to Washington, D.C., to study author Kitty Kelley’s documentation for her claims.

After much discussion and “vetting” by lawyers, it was decided to go ahead with the series. Several major newspapers, however, were sufficiently intimidated that they decided not to run the strips. The Los Angeles Times was one.

A true democracy needs a free and credible press. It is difficult to pin down all the facts, to ascertain the truth – especially in a breaking news situation – and to cover a story completely. But good reporters work very hard at it.

And sometimes in the face of threats or stonewalling, one has to fight back.

Land Line Staff Writer Greg Grisolano passed along one of the most inspired and well-written editorials I’ve seen in a long time. The Frederick (Md.) News-Post was responding to an angry city councilman who threatened a lawsuit if the newspaper dared to print his name. The newspaper’s editorial was titled “Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter.”

Another Frederick councilman had accused the media outlets of being cowards who hide behind the label of journalists.

The News-Post’s answer to that crackled with indignation: “Cowards? Tell that to the families of the 60 journalists killed in 2014, or the 70 in 2013, or the 74 who died in 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. All in pursuit of the truth, or the most reliable version of it at hand in the most dangerous regions of the world.”

When the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred, the French newspaper Le Monde’s headline read “Nous sommes tous Américains” (We Are All Americans). After yesterday’s tragedy in Paris, “Je Suis Charlie” (I Am Charlie) trended worldwide as a social media hashtag and message.

Freedom of the press in the United States is protected by the First Amendment, of course. But we can’t let those protections be eroded. And attacks on free speech, wherever they occur, are a grave threat to us all.