‘Je suis Charlie’ or a step too far? The limits of satire

Charlie Hebdo strikes again: the French satirical magazine launched a series of satirical cartoons portraying the horrible terror attacks that took place in Brussels on March 22th.  One of these cartoons –explicitly- depicts severed body parts covered in blood at Brussels airport. For some, utterly disgraceful and disrespectful, for others, totally acceptable in the democratic context of freedom of expression (Je suis Charlie, remember?). For this occasion, let’s try and look beyond this binary discussion. Can cartoonists go too far? Do satirical cartoons face –ethical/legal-boundaries or limits? And if yes, where can we draw the line?

A thorough conception of this issue begins with understanding what satirical cartoons are. A satirical cartoon can be interpreted as a drawing or representation that intends to ludicrously exaggerate certain characteristics or defects of persons or things, distorting it into ridiculousness. Although satirical cartoons are usually meant to be humorous, they are –in the first place- important outlets of social criticism concerning deeper societal issues, aiming to trigger the general public’s attention and reflection. Because of  this ‘hidden agenda’, they enjoy extensive legal protection within a democratic  state of law. Ridicule, irony, criticism and satire are an integral part of our European freedom of expression [art. 10 ECHR]. The ECHR suggests that satire is a form of artistic expression and social commentary who, through exaggeration and distortion of reality, has a deliberately provocative character. A limitation in one’s right to satire means nothing less than a limitation in one’s freedom of expression, which is inconceivable in a state where this freedom is considered an important cornerstone of democracy. The ECHR stresses the importance of freedom of speech for the individual and society, referring to concepts such as open-mindedness, tolerance and pluralism in a democratic society. Does this mean that everything is permitted? Of course not. Freedom of expression is fundamental, but not absolute, and can be restricted in particular cases. For example, one should not interfere in the private sphere of people because as this is no longer in the name of “public interest”. Furthermore,  satire can also be condemned if it exceeds reasonable limits, that is if it no longer has the purpose of laughter, but rather harms honour and reputation, slander and defamation, insults religion, incites hatred, etc.

So far the legal framework on “the right to satire’. In my opinion, we must –at any cost- guarantee a far-reaching freedom of expression (and freedom of press) as it is part and parcel of our democratic society. But however, this freedom is not unlimited. Media have the vital role of “watchdog of public interest”,  and is therefore an important source of persuasion in the public sphere. This extremely essential duty and responsibility however should not interfere with the proper functioning of our democratic society. Both duties can only be managed with great care and attention if they are exercised with fairness, respect and careful consideration and without unlawful abuse of power. Media should unite and connect people with each other in a unified community. It is up to the media agencies to guard this community and public order by taking up their self-critical and self-regulatory duty to respect the limits to freedom of expression. Therefore, the best limits to this freedom are not those imposed by legal constraints, but the ‘own’ limits introduced by -fair and respectful- media themselves.

Written by Brahim Zarouali

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Brahim Zarouali is working as a PhD-Candidate in Marketing Communications at the University of Antwerp.