The murderous attack on the office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week can be seen in the context of modern French society: its challenges assimilating immigrants, its ongoing efforts to preserve its liberal and secular political culture, and even its national affinity for a kind of scathing and irreverent cartooning rooted in a deep distrust of institutions.
But the attack has a global dimension as it also can be seen as the latest skirmish in a war over freedom of expression. This war has led to a record number of journalists being killed and imprisoned around the world. The last three years have been the most deadly and dangerous ever documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has been keeping detailed data since 1992.
What is the catalyst of this unprecedented increase in violence against the global media? In a word: technology.
The advent of the Internet has completely transformed the way news is gathered and disseminated to the global audience. This new system has tremendous positive advantages, allowing news to flow more easily across borders and making it more difficult for repressive governments to censor and control it. But there are also profound implications for the safety of journalists on the front lines of these information battles.
One way to think about the change is to consider that not that long ago journalists venturing into conflict zones often chose to identify themselves, painting the word “press” on their cars or flak jackets. Journalists were safer because they collectively exercised an information monopoly and this made them useful to the warring parties who needed the media to communicate with the world.
But today many violent groups, such as the Islamic State militants in Syria and the drug cartels in Mexico, rely on the Internet and social media to achieve the same ends and, of course, they are better able to control the message. Journalists are seen as dispensable — more useful as hostages or props in elaborately staged execution videos. In this context, identifying yourself as a journalist makes you a target.
Moreover, because of new enabling technology and cutbacks in the news industry, a growing portion of frontline news gathering today is accomplished by local journalists and freelancers, who inform their own countries and the world. These journalists are more vulnerable because they often work without institutional support.
In fact, the vast majority of journalists killed around the world do not die covering combat. They are deliberately targeted in their own countries because of the stories they cover or the ideas they express. In this context, the attack on Charlie Hebdo is typical of the risk that journalists face everywhere. What made it shocking was that it took place not in Mexico or Pakistan, but in France.
Technology has also changed the global media environment by opening every corner of the world to myriad ideas and information. This too has its consequences.
In 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations, it guaranteed the right to seek and receive information “regardless of frontiers.” That phrase — regardless of frontiers — is unique in international human rights law because it makes freedom of expression explicitly transnational. When the language was ratified, the concept was purely notional. Today, the Internet has made it real.
In other words, the Internet has brought liberal, Western ideas of freedom of expression into direct conflict with 19th century notions of sovereignty and more traditional societies that place enormous value on personal honor and the sanctity of religious symbols.
For example, the Chinese leadership, while embracing connectivity for its citizens, views the Internet as a Trojan horse that can be used to channel dangerous ideas from outside the country, ideas that erode the power of the Communist Party. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently told a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists that he “is increasingly against the Internet every day.” Russia also has been cracking down on online speech. All these governments distrust the Internet and are seeking to exercise greater control over electronic communication within their borders.
Leaders of some Muslim countries have a different but related argument. They are deeply concerned by images they deem to be blasphemous or shocking to religious sensibilities, and which are being imposed on them by a global information system that serves the interests of Western governments and international technology companies.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo responds to this dynamic. While the magazine has sought to shock and offend in a French context, its cartoons traveled around the world, angering religious Muslims in many more conservative societies and providing a rallying cry for Al Qaeda, which put the paper's editors at the top of its hit list.
One can acknowledge the anger and upset of those who see their fundamental religious beliefs mocked while also affirming that we must redouble our efforts to defend freedom of expression around the world. Freedom of expression is not only a fundamental human right; in the Internet era, information is a shared global resource that must be available equally to all.
A global battle for freedom of expression is upon us, and the casualties are mounting. The attack on the journalists of Charlie Hebdo shows us there is no safe haven.
Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and author of "The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom."
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