The right response to a deadly assault on free speech

’Attack on Freedom’; ’La Liberté assassinée’. Headlines like those in The Times and Le Figaro proclaim that the commando-style attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday was an attack on free speech itself. The murdered journalists and cartoonists were famous in France for their fearless mockery of all forms of power, intolerance and hypocrisy. They were killed because they dared to laugh about the founder of the Muslim religion too.

What has changed after the targeted murder of those symbols of free speech and press freedom? The media in France and-everywhere, whether they like it or not, are now part of the story.

The killers’ motive seems beyond doubt: they shouted ’Allahu Akbar’ and ’ the prophet is avenged’. The consequences for the public are great, because a massacre in Paris with echoes of the devastating Mumbai attack of 2008 has been carried out in Europe and more such attempts must be expected. A media office, even one with some police protection, is an easy target for men shooting automatic weapons.

France is a special case thanks to its ardent attachment to secularism. Charlie Hebdo and other media assert that anti-clerical tradition. Many young Muslims from France have gone to the Middle East to become jihadis. But the same is true of the UK, Belgium and other European countries.

Risks are specific to journalists

So the risks are universal but also specific to journalists because their role is to question, expose and hold power of every sort to account. In Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East the targeted kidnapping and killings of journalists by Isis and other jihadi groups has forced international media to limit or abandon direct coverage from some conflict zones.

Will the threat force our own media to self-censor at home? Probably yes, to some extent. Despite the impressive ’Je suis Charlie’ displays of solidarity in France and across Europe, politicians in Paris have often urged the media to moderate their output for fear of reprisals.

Some well-known Muslim figures in the UK urge a stop to religious ’insults’ in the public and media discourse. And the editor of The Independent, Amol Rajan, says he weighed his responsibility to his staff as well as to the defence of free speech when deciding not to re-print the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on the day after the terrible attack.

The media should not back down

There is no single right judgement about the necessary limits to free speech. But the value of the European Court of Human Rights’ landmark ruling 40 years ago - that freedom of expression also applies to ideas that ’offend, shock or disturb’ - has proved a bulwark against attempts by states and other forces to bully the press into silence on matters of public interest.

The media should not back down. They should do even more to equip themselves to inquire, probe and expose, while heeding the warning from President Hollande of France against fanning dangerous communal divisions in western societies.