Editorial: words will have to do

PHOTO: Urmas Nemvalts

Yesterday, they killed journalists in Paris. Gruesome – as any act of terror, lives destroyed. Doubly dreadful when directed against the broader value of freedom of expression, and those standing in its defence.

At newspapers and magazines, all the morning meetings are a bit the same. We gather, we sit around some table, we discuss what to cover, where to send the reporters. At times, reporters are sent to the frontlines. But even on the frontlines, there’s this principle that doctors and journalists are not intentionally killed. At least according to the rules generally deemed to be right. Turns out, the rules no longer apply. And forget about the frontlines – the Charlie Hebdo journalists were killed right there at the office, at one such morning meeting.

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical weekly. It’s there to make fun of the tendencies in society that they happen to find fault with. Journalists are not acting out of interests that are their own. They are interested in the health condition of the society – another aspect allowing the comparison with doctors. In situations where all else seems to fail, humour and fun will help. A joke is a powerful defence. And, sure, a joke pointed towards painful issues in society may hurt. But ... we used to think it’s good enough to have word against word, pen against pen, pencil against pencil.

What happened is painful not just for the journalists that perished, and that they perished for doing what they believed in. The bloodbath at Charlie Hebdo’s does point to problems a lot wider by nature.

The first being that selfsame freedom of expression that the West will hopefully continue to believe in, even after yesterday. The recent cyber attack against Sony Pictures in attempt to stop a comedy on a North-Korean leader is same as yesterday, just in another format. Hence the time to ponder: will extremist organisations and undemocratic regimes be dictating the way we cover events, or what our texts are line in art? And, should we say «no», what will be our means to resist?

The other issue being: have the frontiers moved so as to make pens and pencils come across as weapons – not rifles and machine guns alone? If we’re in the information war era now, should the position of journalists then be reconsidered?

Thirdly, on cultural differences. While in the European thinking murdering journalists seems wrong, we have run into rules rather different. Meanwhile, the different-rule-bearers aren’t dwelling in a far-away-land and a society altogether different, but right here in this Europe of ours. They’ve been raised in a democratic society, educated in a democratic society – and yet they’re ready to kill the ones representing these democratic values. How do we deal with that? And what’s most important: how to see that, due to the terror of a few, other religious or cultural groups should not suffer?

The fourth issue is the one of solidarity. After the Sony cyber attacks, Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten journalist Flemming Rose who received murder threats having published caricatures on Mohammed wrote in New York Times that a rare counter weapon is solidarity. When, in 1989, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a Danish journalist suggested that his colleagues attach the pages of The Satanic Verses to their books. Last night, hundreds of thousands of people all over Europe gathered to show respect to the murdered journalists, and to freedom of expression.

We will need to continue to believe that in a democratic world, words will do against words. And that violence, as said the French thinker Emmanuel Levinas, is not a sign of power but of powerlessness. Even today.