Nilufer Demir/Reuters photo
By Casey Bukro
Charlie Hebdo, the French satire newspaper, published a cartoon of a drowned 3-year-old boy and showed why codes of ethics should warn against satirical cruelty.
Satire can be cruel, inspiring or infuriating. Maybe all at once. But are there limits to this form of freedom of expression?
Charlie Hebdo clearly touched a nerve by joking about the boy lying facedown in the surf of a Turkish beach, after drowning with his mother and a brother while attempting to flee war-torn Syria, becoming a stark symbol of Europe’s growing migrant crisis.
The cartoon was based on photos of the boy, first described as Aylan Kurdi and corrected later as Alan Kurdi.
“The haunting photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach last week, has been inescapable; even if you’ve just seen it once, it’s an image you can’t forget,” wrote Carolyn O’Hara, managing editor of The Week magazine.
O’Hara compared it with other grim photos of the past that forced the world to confront some tragic realities, such as the the 1972 photo of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming in agony from napalm burns, the 1993 image of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese toddler and the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner with outstretched arms.
It could be argued that these images served a greater purpose. Can the same be said about Charlie Hebdo?
Morocco World News reported “a wave of indignation has swept across social media denouncing Charlie Hebdo” for its cartoons “mocking” the drowned toddler. The New York Times reported widespread “disgust” with the cartoons.
The cartoons are in French. Aamna Hohdin, writing in Quartz, an online business news site, explained that one of the cartoons shows a Christian walking on water, while “Muslim children sink.” Another suggests the toddler narrowly missed taking advantage of a fast food promo.
The Quartz report leads with a headline saying “Charlie Hebdo is at it again — this time with jokes on drowned toddlers and the refugee crisis.”
The irony is that earlier this year, Charlie Hebdo gained world sympathy when three terrorists invaded its Paris headquarters and killed 12 people, most of them cartoonists and staff members. The militants, later killed, shouted they were avenging the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, who had been the subject of Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
“We have killed Charlie Hebdo!” shouted the militants, according to a New York Times report. At the time, the French newspaper prompted soul-searching about the limits of free speech. One could argue they’ve done it again, and continue a tradition of indiscriminate offense. The newspaper’s editor now says he will not publish any more cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.
After the Paris attack, Je suis Charlie, I am Charlie, was an expression of solidarity with the satirical newspaper. In the wake of the drowning cartoons, that has not been heard.
It could be argued that a newspaper dedicated to satire does not operate by normal rules of journalism ethics. Its aim usually is to provoke, prod, insult and create awareness of uncomfortable truths.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages journalists to “support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.”
That applies to Charlie Hebdo.