Three days in Paris. 17 dead.
A satirical magazine targeted for lampooning radical Islam. Shoppers at a kosher supermarket siege killed.
This morning I came back from my run, red as a baboon’s bum after the lack of training over Christmas.
Mum dozed in front of the morning news, fresh from a night shift.
I stood as the heat prickled off my skin. The fan drew lazy circles above our heads and a lump of pride formed in my throat as I watched the morning news.
In Paris thousands upon thousands of people, Middle Eastern flags, French flags, Irish flags, American Flags, Swedish flags toted high in the air, they marched through the city. There were so many they milled like sardines, one huge united mass.
Between 1.5 -2 million people marched in Paris said the newsreader.
The three days of terror had the opposite effect the killers intended.
People who had never rallied before came onto the streets of Paris, packed their children in the car and drove from across France and Europe, marched singing and shouting and holding hands, to show that freedom of speech will never be silenced.
There will always be those brave enough to exercise their right.
Earlier in the week I had been disgusted to see several major news outlets showing an online video of the gunmen shooting dead 42-year-old police officer Ahmed Merabet as he lay on the ground, appearing to plead for his life.
What has the world come to when amateur video footage of somebody’s cold-blooded murder can be run openly on news websites with a simple ‘graphic warning’ bar.
This morning I watched footage of Merabet’s brother, good looking and devastated, lean forward into the microphone and say “for the rallies across Paris, across France, across the world, I thank you. It means a lot to us.”
I was thankful too to the people of Paris for showing Merabet’s family that we cared, that we supported his brother and his community and were aware of the difference between extremists and ordinary Muslims.
It is in the wake of real tragedy the good people come to the fore.
Last week I held my friend’s baby boy.
“It’s so weird that 16 days ago he was in my stomach,” she said, feeding him with the ease I use to make a coffee.
He squirmed his tiny arms and opened his mouth in the silent cry of a baby bird. I was struck by how little he was.
How many things could harm him! What a miracle it was that any of us reached adulthood at all.
A loaf of bread could suffocate him; a loud noise could deafen him. I felt as though a small breeze would leave him with pneumonia.
He was tiny and beautiful and would one day be a grown, talking man. Bizarre.
A reverse of these thoughts played through my head as I looked hard at the faces of the two brothers accused of shooting dead journalists, cartoonists and other innocent people in the Charlie Hebdo Magazine attack in Paris.
They were little boys once, probably bounced on their mother’s knee. I wonder if she looked into their eyes as they suckled and thought, ‘drink up little murderers.’
My bet is not.
Somewhere along the way something goes wrong. It raises, as always, the debate of nature versus nurture.
Are people born bad? With the ability to murder? My belief is that some are. But most aren’t.
I would hate to kill another human being. But I think I could do it if I had to. In a situation where I would be killed unless I killed my attacker. I could do it.
But these two brothers?
The BBC reported in their online coverage of the event:
“Witnesses said they heard the gunmen shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Great” in Arabic (“Allahu Akbar”).”
This is radicalism. It is nurture not nature at play here. And it is extremely sad.
Four of the magazine’s cartoonists were shot dead in the attack. Perhaps an indicator of the power of the pen, and of humour, to really hit its mark.
It is the cartoons in a newspaper that make me stop and think. It is the cartoons that neatly summarise the crux of an issue in a way a lengthy article cannot quite manage.
The ability for humour to hone a pincer sharp light on an issue remains long after blustery and indignant words have faded.
Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists did exactly what they set out to do: raise important dialogue around contentious issues, get under the skin enough to highlight a point, draw attention to something in a satirical and confronting way.
And it is for this reason they died at the hands of gunmen motivated by radical religion. A sad, sad day for free speech indeed.
Perhaps some of the best coverage was the BBC’s compilation of obituaries for those killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack. Well worth a read.
France lost some amazing people that day.
Another post which shows the spirit of those who fight to protect free speech is this, a resounding and powerful response from cartoonists globally – a message of unity and above all, the prevailing might of pen over sword:
Four years ago, as a brightly-dressed uni student with little real worries, but an intensely curious mind pointed at the world at large, I attended an amazing event.
My university hosted the 2010 UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Press Freedom Day.
This was a big deal. It was an annual event and this was the first time it had come to the Pacific….let alone to the University of Queensland in BRISBANE!
I was one of the volunteers who helped interview journalists and speakers in attendance and produce short podcasts for the live coverage.
I put on my best practical heels, did my hair in an elegant but forgettable manner, and charged the battery on my Zoom audio recorder.
‘Freedom of speech’ was a buzz phrase to me before that day. Something people spoke about, but something Australians didn’t have a whole lot of drama with. Certainly not on the scale I was about to discover.
I sat in a packed lecture hall, madly scribbling notes as a journalist from Fiji described going to work in a dictator-led country.
He described the military personnel marching into his office before the paper went to print each afternoon. How in the beginning they wrote truly, and in the end they self-censored so they didn’t get a bullet through their skull at 4pm in their office chairs.
It would have broken their hearts not to write what was happening in their country. Not to let the people know that what was going down in their island nation was wrong and illegal, and everybody knew about it.
That is what freedom of the press means.
Another journalist shared their story. I put my pen down and ingested every word, spellbound. They told how they had been working in an African country, in the grip of a military coup.
One day a car carrying journalist colleagues was led into an ambush, the back doors opened and the occupants gunned dead. Red blood on the white tailgate. Stifling African heat spread like an old coat over the whole scene.
They suspected their translator, though they didn’t blame him. Everybody had a family that could be held hostage to meet certain demands.
That was the problem.
This was real, and it was happening to journalists all across our globe for reporting what was really going on in countries with major political problems.
I have the utmost respect for journalism, as atrocities don’t stop until there is enough public outcry, trade sanctions or international pressure.
And those things don’t happen until the stories see the light of day. The fact some journalists are willing to die so that those stories are heard is the reason some of them are ever heard.
That night I ate my povo uni dinner (affectionately termed Three Potato Stirfry). This was a carb-friendly mix of rice, potato, sweet potato and onion, and yes, I am aware onion is not in fact the third species of potato.
I sat on my front lawn in Bardon and listened back to my recording with an Argentinean radio host.
Noisy miners were sitting in the wattle tree above the pool, mining noisily. Rush hour traffic was streaming down Chiswisk Rd, a handy shortcut to avoid the Toowoong roundabout.
I hit play and listened as his deliberate, accented voice explained that without journalism in countries like his, politicians could get away with blue murder. And often it was just that; murder.
I finished my Three Potato Stirfry without enthusiasm and went to bed thinking about who I’d meet tomorrow.
I parked a ten-minute walk from the university, far from the parking man’s vile clutches, and headed in for the final day of the event.
Today the prize would be awarded. After finishing my jobs I snagged a good seat in the auditorium.
Well dressed, like many Chileans, Mónica González Mujica took the stage, her bright silk scarf a testament to her vibrant country.
It was a day and a person I will remember for years. She received the (UNESCO)/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for the work she did during the dark years of Chile’s military coup and dictatorship (1973-1990).
The award is named in honour of Colombian editor Guillermo Cano Isaza who was assassinated for fearlessly denouncing the crimes of drug mafia operating in his country.
I remember being very tired that day as Ms González took the podium.
As she spoke, strength and emotion resting equally on her words, I felt my physical awareness melt away. The fatigue left. Every word sunk slowly into my skull.
She spoke about the things that had happened to her during the barbaric rule of General Pinochet, the military commander who seized power after his troops slaughtered and arrested a democratically elected President and members of the new government.
The things this lady spoke about; her treatment at the hands of soldiers, what it was like living in the torture prisons of Chile during that dark chapter, had a profound effect on me.
Despite harassment, exile and eventually arrest and torture, this woman continued to publish books, articles and stories about what was happening in her country.
It is the kind of bravery that makes all your other thoughts hush. That makes your $150 parking ticket fade away to nothing.
I did not fully grasp the extent of the pain and danger she was in until I put my own two feet on Santiago soil.
Chile’s capital is bound up in history. The people are vibrant and well dressed. There is great pizza, elegant market plazas and towering, cramped apartment blocks. 17 years of dictatorship and terror had taken place here.
Above it all the Andes blink their snow studded lashes at the whole scene. If those mountains could talk they would have some stories.
Of the two university students, 18-year-old Carmen Quintana and19-year-old Rodrigo Rojas Denegri, who were covered in petrol and set alight in front of witnesses, for daring to protest against Pinochet and his soldiers.
Read Carmen’s story here: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24014543
As I walked slowly through each floor of Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights, I thought about the speech Ms González made in Brisbane years ago.
I looked at the cold metal bed before me. It was used to strap prisoners to, naked and dripping wet, to better conduct electricity through their bodies during torture.
I stood with tears streaming hot down my cheeks as I watched the video testimonial of a woman who had lived through that very torture.
“They told me to take my clothes off,” she said.
“And there was always a risk there that as a woman you would be abused in some way.
“I will never forget the sound it made as the electricity went through my body.
“Afterwards for a long time everything would bleed. Blood would come out of my eyes, my nose, my ears, my vagina.”
The death of free speech and the failure to protect the right of the press to investigate and report is somberly highlighted in Santiago’s museum.
These people were arrested for opposing a violent man who was not elected. They were tortured and mistreated for raising their voice, exercising their right.
As always however, the people who were brave enough to keep raising those voices, such as Mónica González Mujica, were instrumental in bringing enough outcry and national pressure to oust Pinochet once and for all.
He was taken out of power in a democratic NO Vote. During his regime four newspapers were shut down and opponents were ‘disappeared’.
Leading up the historic NO Vote, campaigners were harassed. It did not silence people. They continued to speak.
As I watched over a million march in Paris for solidarity this morning I was again reminded of the strength of standing up for something. Of protecting, above all else, our free speech.