We have learnt with shock and awe what had transpired in Paris, France with the satirical magazine ‘Charlie Habdo’ that has been printing only few thousand copies and which was taking the full stride and maximum utilization of freedom of expression.This freedom in the deep meaning of the Western world was one that you may say or write or draw anything as far as you are exercising it. Which means as well as no one is able to tell you what your limit is because it is you who will decide that. Which means you have the right of injuring the heart, the feeling of any other person, abuse his culture, torment his religious beliefs as far as you can justify it is within your liberal constitutional right – be it views, opinion or any expression.
In such a situation extreme freedom becomes just like the law of the jungle or the mightier make the rules. And the mightier here has multiple meaning. It could be financial, it could be political. It could be a group that has a powerful lobby and it could be a group that has power for propaganda that is controlling the media in all its aspects.In this episode 12 lives were lost and in the ensuing rage 5 more perished. By any standard this was a big loss and is a shocker for any country. It is terrible to the families and the very freedom of expression itself. But the main question we can all ask: Was it necessary?
One of the strongest tenants of Western democracy is tolerance of which was surely lacking here. That a blame is apportioned to Muslims, those who took the extreme action, for not being understanding and thus tolerant and bear it as freedom of expression when their Prophet was being reduced through a cartoon or caricature.Of course, those who draw or make those satires fully understand, even if they were ignorant, they have been educated that Muslims have never conceived the image of this particular Prophet of theirs – who is very dear to them in their hearts. Even all previous Western films on his life, never imagined how his face looked – it has been blank.However, all of a sudden beginning with a Danish newspaper and now ‘Charlie Habdo’ we see the drawing of such cartoons with vicious purpose and impunity. The questions I have been asking myself include: Isn’t this in itself countering the very principle of the Western democracy of tolerance? Is lack of respect not the direct results of intolerance? And is respect not within the diction of the Western democracy?
I have always been of the belief that there must be cautious freedom. And in cautious freedom you consider consequences of your actions. We say in journalism ‘there is no story worth your life’ and certainly there is no freedom worth your life.
I am glad and hope that we in Tanzania would not try to cross that freedom line. While in some African countries some newspapers have reprinted the said cartoons, we have had no media house trying to be that daring. It is human to be sensitive to others’ feelings when you know your action would hurt them and cause friction and even ending into wars. Pope Francis has said it all that freedom has its limits and playing with the feelings of one’s religion should not be over stretched. He, for example said, you can expect as a reaction to taking a punch when you insult someone’s mother. It will be naïve, I put it, when you pretend not to know this. I urge the press in Tanzania, as well as all religious groups to refrain from hurting the feelings of people belong to other faiths – my lesson from the ‘Charlie Habdo’ saga.
Mr Ally Saleh is a lawyer, journalist, author, political commentator, media consultant and poet. He is based in Zanzibar