This story is over 5 years old.

When Guns Are Louder Than Words

Blackmail and fear are the tools used to destroy freedom of expression. And beware, it is being destroyed.

See you at the next massacre. See you the next time bloodshed brings everyone together. All the attention, all the closeness, that followed the Charlie Hebdo shooting has already begun to fade, and soon we will find ourselves at the next attack, hugging one another and declaring that free speech must be defended as the foundation of all other rights. But where was everyone before the slaughter?

The person reading this article may live in the US. Perhaps he considers freedom of expression to be his birthright. He may be unable to imagine the possibility of dying for a book, an article, or even a turn of phrase. Of course, several American journalists have recently died for telling the truth: Steven Sotloff, James Foley, Daniel Pearl, and Luke Somers, to name just a few. But they perished in Syria, in Pakistan, in Yemen, not in New York or Texas. Such a risk is always associated with a war zone. But freedom of expression is under siege everywhere.


Sergei Dolgov, editor of a Russian-language newspaper in Ukraine, has been missing since June of last year, and some say that he is dead. The Russian photojournalist Andrey Stenin was killed in Russia in 2014, as was Andrea Rocchelli, an Italian photographer. Sedef Kabas, a Turkish writer, currently faces five years in prison for tweeting criticism of the Erdogan government. The list goes on and on. In America, libel suits are the most important instrument for stopping a journalist; elsewhere the tools are bullets and prison bars.

I was struck by the prophetic sentence spoken by the late editor of Charlie, Stéphane Charbonnier, a friend of mine: "I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no children, no wife, no car, no credit. It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I'd rather die standing than live on my knees." Charbonnier, or Charb, drew cartoons; he was the editorial director of a satirical weekly. Yet his words seemed like the declaration of a warrior monk, a go-it-alone firebrand, who is aware that each of his choices may come back down on those around him.

Blackmail and fear are the tools used to destroy freedom of expression. And beware, it is being destroyed. I don't believe in the idealistic position of people who say, "Now that their message has arrived everywhere, those journalists have won." No, no, and no. Life is more precious than a right that can only be defended through a sacrifice like that. And yet the risk was underestimated.


Charbonnier's protection was not a real security detail, just a driver and an armed man. And when his colleagues moved offices, they lost their guards at the entrance and were instead provided with a security patrol making occasional rounds to check on things, which is hardly effective in these cases. The public seldom takes imperiled writers, artists, and editors seriously unless their blood waters the ground; in fact the public is often suspicious of them. Take Salman Rushdie, to whom British writers have repeated words I know all too well from my own experience: "You should bring flowers to Khomeini's tomb because without him you wouldn't be so famous." Threats against someone almost never bring about real solidarity with the threatened, just suspicions that he has found a clever way to stand out. Yet freedom of expression is not an acquired right to be carried out only in newspapers and courtrooms. It's a principle that transcends all legal papers and embodies the substantial characteristic that makes the Western world free.

I was in New York when the attack took place. In Washington Square, where they held a memorial for the people slain by the terrorists in Paris, almost everyone was French. Few people in America understood that the bullets fired on innocent cartoonists and others had also limited their own freedom of expression. Here in the US most newspapers "blacked out" the cartoons. Respect for freedom of religion camouflaged what was actually fear—fear that publishing a cartoon would trigger a vendetta. I understand the belief that a cartoon can offend, but in the face of a death sentence handed down for a cartoon, the need to defend the right to blaspheme is more important than the need to be courteous.


Though France responded much better than other European governments (in similar situations) to the threats and subsequent attack, declaring that anyone who claimed to be offended by their work could take legal action, violence ultimately rained down on the French people. The complaint against Charlie was filed not in a lawsuit or a request for damages but in the only court these fanatics know and frequent: the firing squad.

Criticisms of the cartoons were whispered, and sometimes shouted, everywhere. The magazine was accused of raising the limits to try to get out of the red. Yet blasphemy becomes a right, even an obligation, when certain questions of principle arise. We should remember that the same newspapers that deemed Charlie's sacrilege indecorous have published all kinds of gossip photos and violated privacy without reservations, something that Charlie's editors never did. The reason they didn't publish the cartoons wasn't piety but cowardice. No one should ever make silence or self-censorship a practice out of the fear of being killed, threatened, blackmailed, or simply hated.

These days, in the months following the attack as much the months leading up to it, Europe has forgotten the right to free expression. Europe hasn't erased the right but has left its defense to habit, has neglected it and will continue to neglect it until someone again attempts to bury it in a mountain of bullets. Beyond Islamic terrorism, the complacency is also reflected in the case of mafias. In my own experience, governments hesitate and courts rarely consider threats to be crimes in themselves but rather mere corollaries—or they recognize them only in the presence of blood. I wonder: Do you know how many journalists died last year across the world? Sixty-six were killed, and 221 were jailed.


How is it possible to forget that in Turkey, a candidate for membership in the European Union, 23 members of the media are in prison for producing news that is critical of the government? How have we largely ignored Raif Badawi, the blogger whom Saudi Arabia, a United States ally and its most lucrative arms client, sentenced to a thousand lashes for opening an online discussion forum on Islam and democracy? In Italy many investigative reporters, including myself, are forced to live under 24/7 police protection while the mob flourishes with impunity. In Denmark fanatics have tried on a number of occasions to kill cartoonist Kurt Westergaard for having drawn a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad, and his plight has become little more than a footnote even as he sits at the top of al Qaeda's Most Wanted list. Have we already forgotten the Dutch director Theo van Gogh, assassinated in 2004 after releasing Submission, a film dealing with violence against Muslim women? Several months ago, María del Rosario Fuentes Rubio was slain in Mexico for her anti-cartel campaigns on Twitter—and tens of students met the same fate for participating in a protest—but no one in the press, least of all the government, appears to care. The fact that these things didn't happen in Paris or Berlin seems reason enough to ignore them. Whether or not we're all Charlie Hebdo, we march in solidarity only after blood is shed. And that's only some of the time.

Charlie had been unable to reach millions of people; it was always in crisis and on the brink of closing. We're not talking about an attack on CNN, or on the largest newspaper in France. But the biggest is not necessarily the most frightening to the extremists. Instead they focused their aggression on one of France's most unflinchingly honest publications, on a magazine that created new, instantly intelligible, highly visible ways of lampooning the contradictions of fanaticism. With increasing frequency, rather than shooting up a military base or a government office, terrorists are gunning down artists, intellectuals, and bloggers in an effort to suppress thought itself. Drug traffickers and tyrannical regimes are equally immersed in the war on ideas. It means intimidating everyone, creating an immediate identification between public opinion and the person who was slain.

We're facing an assault not on offices or institutions but on the last space that separates the West from its discontents: the freedom of expression. For the past ten years I have lived under police protection because of threats from the Neapolitan Mafia, and there are countless others like me throughout the world. Echoes of the indifference to these risks can be heard in any political meeting I attend. Whoever is reading this right now can make a difference by understanding and giving voice to all those who are condemned to death for a word: those like María del Rosario Fuentes Rubio and the many brave students who followed her to the grave. Governments should establish freedom of expression as a requirement for commercial exchanges, but Saudi Arabian oil and the low cost of Chinese labor will prevent this from ever happening. Where governments fail, civil society can do a lot: open up news programs to keep these stories in circulation, dedicating to them the space and time they deserve. My own story shows just how important the response of readers and the public is. I would have been forgotten completely if it hadn't been for the public attention given to me. The compromised, deeply corrupt Italian state would have never defended me without pressure from the outside.

We talked about freedom of the press as the streets of Paris filled with a million people. But soon, if we don't act, the silence will return—and fade into the most perfect silence of all.

Translated from the Italian by Kim Ziegler