Global News Outlets Divided Over Whether to Show New Charlie Hebdo Cover

Stephane Charbonnier Hebdo Cover - H 2015
Associated Press

The first issue of the French satire magazine after last week's terrorist attacks features a weeping Prophet Muhammad.

The issue of whether to display the new cover of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which depicts a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, has split media outlets in the U.S. and overseas.

The image, showing Muhammad crying and holding up a "Je suis Charlie" sign under the headline "All Is Forgiven," was blasted across the Internet Monday ahead of the magazine's publication, the first issue of Charlie Hebdo since terrorists attacked its offices, killing 12 people, on Jan. 7.

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The "Je suis Charlie" expression of solidarity appeared online immediately afterward. The expression, which means "I am Charlie," has become the official slogan in protest against the attacks, and "Je suis Charlie" signs were everywhere in Paris on Sunday when more than a million people took to the streets in a mass demonstration.

The new Charlie Hebdo cartoon was shown on television on Fox News, CBS News, the BBC, Germany's ARD and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and printed in several newspapers, including France's Liberation, The Guardian in Britain, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

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But many news outlets, including NBC News, NPR, Britain's Daily Mail, The New York Times and the Associated Press, chose not to show the cartoon, choosing instead to describe its content to their audience. At issue is whether the news value of the image outweighs its potential to offend. Depicting images of the Prophet Muhammad is considered a sacrilegious act by many Muslims. Outlets that chose not to show the cartoon, or cropped or blurred the offensive images, cited cultural sensitivity and standards of decency as reasons.

Many chose to only briefly show the Charlie Hebdo cover — as the BBC did on its Newsnight program, but it kept the image offline. Others, including Britain's The Guardian and The Independent newspapers, ran the cartoon but included a warning that it could offend some readers.

In France, there was no such hesitation. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were splashed across the front pages and in primetime across all networks.

"It was a natural thing for us," Antoine de Caunes, French journalist and host of Canal Plus' nightly news magazine Le Grand Journal, told THR. "Canal Plus has a very strong history of irony and satire; [it's like] the DNA of the channel. So there was not a big meeting or talks if we should show it or not, we just did it. And to be honest, I think a good decision on that day would have been for every media [outlet] in the world to have shown the caricatures. It was the strongest statement we could make, absolutely."

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For many broadcasters outside France, the issue of what to show was also one of safety. Speaking on CNN's decision not to show any of Charlie Hebdo's Muhammad cartoons, CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker last week said it was to ensure "the safety of our employees around the world."

"I understand that you may have reasons to be careful with American interests in the world and not set things on fire," said de Caunes, "but at some point you have to put up strong statements in front of these people. I think that they need to feel everyone is united against them, that the whole world is standing up against their barbarian behavior. It would be much more powerful." Citing the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of free speech, de Caunes noted the difference between what American and European television finds offensive.

"I don't understand how it works exactly, because I'm always very amazed that on American TV you can't say f—. It's very strange for people in Europe to understand, and then at the same time you have the best satirists like Jon Stewart, and the best and most radical humor like Louis C.K. It's a very strange gap."

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Whatever the political stance behind the decision on the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the safety risks are real. After a Hamburg newspaper last week reprinted some of the magazine's Muslim cartoons on its front page, its offices were firebombed. In an editorial this week, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Frank Niggemeier, said the decision to show the cartoons "was correct and important. … It wasn't about provocation, it was about taking a stand. Against the crazed terror of religious fanatics and for freedom of speech and the press."

The BBC last week confirmed that it had revised its editorial guidelines, which had banned depictions of Muhammad on its news and magazine programs, and that guidelines posted on the BBC website citing a ban on images of Muhammad were "old, out of date and do not reflect the BBC's long-standing position that program makers have freedom to exercise their editorial judgment with the editorial policy team available to provide advice around sensitive issues on a case by case basis." The guidelines are currently being revised, a BBC spokesman told THR.

The BBC showed a brief image of the Charlie Hebdo cover featuring Muhammad on its News at Ten program and showed the new Muhammad cover on Newsnight, with an anchor explaining the image as "typical Charlie Hebdo."

Commenting on outlets that refused to show the cartoons out of sensitivity, acclaimed German investigative journalist Gunter Wallraff told German broadcaster WDR: "I don't call that sensitivity, I call it cowardice. If everyone follow that line, they [the Islamists] will have won."

Twitter: @sroxborough

Jan. 13, 6:47 a.m. A earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the BBC recently revised its policy regarding depictions of Muhammad. The Hollywood Reporter regrets the error.

Jan. 13, 1:00 p.m. This story has been updated to note that Fox News is airing the Charlie Hebdo cover.