slipperyOne month after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks, censorship is returning to normal.

Charb’s rationale

Before getting into specifics, it’s worth recapping why the late Stéphane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier and his editorial team adopted the policy they did.

Until the Danish paper Jyllands Posten published the controversial cartoons of Islam’s prophet in 2005, Charlie Hebdo took religious potshots largely at traditional Catholicism. Once the furore of the Danish cartoons followed, the Charlie Hebdo team shifted their attention accordingly, although they still ridiculed Catholicism and Judaism and equally as crudely.

On January 17, 2015, the French newsweekly Marianne asked ‘Why were they so alone?’ The article has the following quotes from Charb:

If we start saying ‘we can’t draw Mohammed’, then we won’t be able to draw Muslims at all. If we yield on even one detail, freedom of expression is finished. 

If we take into account the context, the global context will never be favourable with regard to laughing at radical Islam or religion in general. If we take context into account, we won’t be able to talk about anything, ever; the satirical press will be condemned and stuffed.

It is essential to remember that Charlie Hebdo drew vulgar cartoons about all three main religions, never just one.

It is interesting to note that, around the time of the attacks, in Nice, a Muslim snack shop owner’s premises was destroyed. He made the grave error of selling ham and butter sandwiches. He is determined to reopen his business.

Fallout in the United Kingdom

The first weekend in February showed the extent of British censorship.

Before detailing what happened, readers should note that only a handful of media outlets — one magazine, two or three newspapers and one or two television news stations — showed any Charlie Hebdo cartoons, mostly the poignant cover of the mid-January issue. Those who showed more understandably shied away from the most controversial drawings.

Similarly, Charlie Hebdo is not normally sold in the UK. Two press distribution companies ordered 2,000 copies of the mid-January issue to sell on to independent newsagents. Two or three shop owners were featured in the newspapers; the owners said that customers could order copies through them. However, the majority did not advertise the availability of the magazine.

The Guardian newspaper has been selling ‘Je suis Charlie’ pencil badges. It is a great idea from the perspective of defending Western values regarding freedom of expression. However, a lady from a small town in Wiltshire wrote the paper to say that anything related to Charlie Hebdo might attract police attention. Her letter was published on February 8. Excerpts follow:

Tongue in cheek, I asked my helpful newsagents to obtain a copy of the edition of Charlie Hebdo issued after the dreadful massacre in Paris, if indeed a copy was ever available in north Wiltshire …

However, two days later a member of Her Majesty’s police service visited said newsagent, requesting the names of the four customers who had purchased Charlie Hebdo. So beware, your badges may attract police interest in your customers.

On February 9, The Guardian followed up with the Wiltshire police. It turns out that this lady’s details, along with those of three others who had ordered from the same newsagent, were given to the police. All because the four ordered the special issue of Charlie Hebdo. The Wiltshire police service spokesman said that they did so to protect the newsagent in case of community tensions. It would seem as if this were a one-off in the county, but why take this action in a small town which has no community tensions? The county’s police and crime commissioner told The Guardian:

I am reassured that the force have taken the right action and permanently and securely disposed of the information gathered.

I am satisfied that there was no intention on the part of the force to seek to inhibit the circulation of Charlie Hebdo.

Concerned readers commented on the article. The most frequently mentioned concerns were whether the customers’ details really were permanently deleted and how many other counties in Britain also saw police visits to newsagents.

On Tuesday, February 10, the paper published a second article which revealed that officers in Wales and in Cheshire also questioned newsagents about people who ordered Charlie Hebdo. These newsagents did not reveal the identity of their customers and found the situation worrying.

The Guardian asked Conservative MP David Davis for his thoughts. Davis said that it was more “stupid than sinister” but added:

Quite what they think they’re doing and why they are wasting police time tracking down individual readers of Charlie Hebdo, really makes you wonder what sort of counter-terrorism and security policy those police forces are pursuing.

It also has to be said that when police forces check up on what you are reading it’s unsettling in a democracy. I’m quite sure it’s not intentionally so, but it is unsettling and not something you should do lightly.

Agreed. However, as our police have probably not seen the magazine, they do not quite understand what it is about: satire, nothing threatening.

The article went on to say that the Metropolitan Police have not been asking London newsagents for any details of customers ordering Charlie Hebdo. Furthermore, the national police organisation ACPO has not issued any general guidance on this issue, either. Thankfully.

However, on February 8, a group of 1,000 Muslims demonstrated in Whitehall and presented a petition signed by 100,000 more to No. 10 Downing Street. No doubt this is to request some sort of censorship regarding representation of their religion. It is unfortunate for the Pope that several placards carried his quote about violence towards anyone who might criticise his mother.

No British publication has ever created or reproduced characterisations of the prophet in question. Nor would they.

The protestors would have done better to travel to Paris and protest at the Elysée Palace under the auspices of a local Muslim association.

France and Belgium

Meanwhile in France and Belgium, censorship continues apace.

Marianne (Issue 929, February 6-12, 2015, pp 34-36) has an article on various artistic exhibitions which have been cancelled or postponed.

Cinema: The showing of two feature-length films, Timbuktu and l’Apôtre (The Apostle) have been postponed for the foreseeable future. Timbuktu, nominated for an Oscar and a César — and already the recipient of a Best Director award from the Lumières (Lights) awards ceremony — is not being shown because the UMP (Conservative) mayor of Villiers-sur-Marne says that Amedy Coulibaly’s wife (thought to be in Turkey or Syria at present) is from Timbuktu. Showing the film would only create tension. L’Apôtre is even more controversial; it tells the story of a young Muslim who wants to become an imam and instead converts to Christianity once he sees the baptism of a friend’s son. The director, Cheyenne Carron, says that the security police, the DGSI, cancelled showings in Neuilly (upper middle class suburb of Paris) and Nantes (Pays de la Loire, in the west of France). Marianne says that the film is now available only on DVD where people can watch it:

At home. Without bothering anyone.

Television: Guillaume Meurice, the presenter of the humour segment on Canal+’s La Nouvelle Edition, stood down after the channel’s executives refused to let him show and comment on a Charlie Hebdo cartoon.

Parti Socialiste: The French Socialist Party (PS) has been conducting a Twitter campaign, Faire Vivre la Republique: Bring the Republic to Life. They invited the famous illustrator Xavier Gorce to contribute a drawing. His anodine illustration of a woman in a burqa upset many Tweeters who saw it. The PS promptly removed it with no further explanation.

Theatre: The play Lapidée (Stoned) is to debut in March in Paris. It should have had its opening night by now but has been postponed. It tells the stories of women sentenced to death by stoning in Yemen. The play’s producer told Marianne that the police said the poster set to appear outside the theatre could incite violence. One of the actresses said:

People in the street are afraid. Everyone yelled at the top of their lungs ‘Je suis Charlie’, but when it comes to taking action, no one’s around.

Museums: In the Paris suburb of Clichy-la-Garenne, an art exhibition is taking place. However, one of the exhibits — Silence — has been withdrawn. Silence, created by the Franco-Algerian Zoulikha Bouabdellah, is an art installation which features 24 prayer mats, each with an identical pair of luxury white high-heeled shoes in the centre. A local Muslim group asked for its withdrawal saying that it could provoke ‘irresponsible incidents’. Meanwhile, in Belgium, the Hergé Museum, largely devoted to all things Asterix, has cancelled a tribute to Charlie Hebdo. The museum’s directors feared being ‘fired upon’.


Charb was right. Who knew such censorship would happen so soon?