My freedom of speech after Charlie Hebdo

I was born in 1991 – two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria, was ‘freed” from communism. I suppose that’s the main reason why I have an issue understanding what the fuss about freedom of speech is all about. Never in my life have I had a problem saying whatever I wanted to say. As a journalist I was always able to express myself while my editors only fixed my wording, spelling and grammar. Until now freedom of speech was something I took for granted. But then the Charlie Hebdo shooting happened and for the very first time in my life I realised what freedom of speech really is and more importantly – what is it to feel that your freedom is threatened.

Since I don’t speak French, I have only heard about Charlie Hebdo because it published the Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons that caused a huge controversy a decade ago. When I saw information about the shooting on Twitter, I was shocked. Shocked as a person, as a citizen of a western country, as a journalist, as someone who believes that free speech is one of modern societies’ most precious achievements. Then I checked out what these people did to trigger such actions against their satiric art.

What I found were cartoons that most of the world, including many people in Bulgaria, would consider too excessive. The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo didn’t leave a stone unturned. They mocked everything with extreme sarcasm and I can fully understand why their work made so many people angry, although nothing can justify such an aggression. And that’s what is amazing about Charlie Hebdo and France. The people there are exercising their freedom of speech in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else before.

Most of the western world has some issues with religious or ethnic minorities. In Bulgaria we struggle with the Roma people and Syrian refugees. These topics are very often polarizing society and there are two extreme points of view. One is that we shouldn’t leave these filthy animals to conquer our country and culture. The other is that we should help and protect them no matter what it’ll cost us. My believes are somewhere in the middle – we should integrate the different, without losing our identity, and yes – these people are a problem, a big one as well.

When we talk about these issues in Bulgaria there is one giant elephant in the room called “political correctness”, or the sever lack of it. On the one side are the ones who take the path of extreme hate and some weird Doomsday-like scenarios about the death of everything Bulgarian, thanks to those filthy minorities. On the other hand are the touchy minority rights protectors who act like pinched[1] ladies, as we say in Bulgaria, whenever someone shares an opinion stating that there actually is a problem.

One of the most controversial covers of Charlie Hebdo

One of the most controversial covers of Charlie Hebdo. The bubble says “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”

As far as I can tell the English language media, especially the American one, doesn’t have a too different position. The distinctions are that the talking is going on at a higher level and with better arguments and wording, but the situation is practically the same. The first examples that come to my mind are #GamerGate, Ferguson, gay marriage and this guy’s freaking t-shirt.

This political correctness isn’t helping anyone and is probably the worst exercise of freedom of speech. We censor ourselves because we don’t want to offend anybody. We try, and fail, to talk about enormous problems with little words and arguments. We want to resolve big issues with small talk.

Charlie Hebdo does exactly the opposite and that makes the satirical newspaper one of the best examples of freedom of speech for me . Often extreme, sometimes bounderish, every now and then ridiculous, but always representing these people’s views and believes. Obviously they never held back on dark jokes and that wasn’t a problem for the people in France. On the contrary, that made Charlie Hebdo loved and respected, not just in France, but also worldwide.

On the other side of Europe, 25 years into our democratic freedom, people still don’t really know what is freedom. We never really used our freedom of speech and that’s a good reason to be unable to say that We Are Charlie, as millions did with #JeSuisCharlie. But hopefully really soon many of us will be able to say that we are Charlie with our heads held as high as Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists’.


1. A Bulgarian idiom for someone with high ego, who doesn’t accept critique


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