Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Charlie Hebdo & Matador: when cartoons create controversy

Opinion article by: Cyriac Bouët (email:
Universidad EAFIT, Colombia

About Freedom of press

The freedom of press is one of the fundamentals principles for democratic systems, alongside freedom of opinion and freedom of speech. It is defined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 that “ Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”. 

Even though both Charlie and Matador illustrations can be very critical and shocking, it is important to keep in mind that their purpose is primarily to distract the reader, as it is featured in a published journal, that led to many reunion with the redactors and editors, it has to be validated in order to be published, and when you buy a journal, you know a little bit about how oriented is its content. For example, it is well known that the two major sport related newspaper in Spain, As! And Marca both have a strong support, one for the Real Madrid, and the other for FC Barcelona, and that their content, while relating to the same news, will be written differently. 

The political satire was born at the same time as freedom of press in the early 18th century in England, and then later in France as the French Revolution occurred. It has often been a way to communicate effectively an idea or a thought in a more effective way than with words. Every year, the NGO Reporters without Borders establish a ranking of the countries who gives the more freedom of press. To get to this ranking, the NGO send surveys to local journalists, but also to lawyers, politicians and scientists who study this sector, about threats done to journalist, but also about the press itself, its owners, the ease of diffusion, etc. As of 2017, the European Nordic countries were dominating the ranking, with Norway on top of it. France was ranked 39th and Colombia 129th. At the end of the ranking can be found all state-controlled countries with North Korea closing the ranking at the 180th rank.

Background and context

We will start with Charlie Hebdo. It is a French satirical magazine, associated with the political left-wing ideas, which first got published in 1970. It features a lot of political cartoons, and satirical images, along some investigative articles about various subjects (politics, culture, religion, cults, right-wing politics, etc.). The team behind Charlie Hebdo in 1970 was the team of the magazine Hara-Kiri, which got banned due to political incorrectness. This is the spirit that can characterize the periodic. Its first great scandal though was in 2006, when the magazine chose to feature Mahomet’s caricatures from the Danish periodic Jyllands-Posten, which lead to violent reaction in Muslim countries and in France. In 2011, after another too satirical front page (the edition was renamed “Charia Hebdo”), the headquarters of the magazine was burned with Molotov cocktails by Muslim activists. Then in 2015, two armed radical islamists entered the new headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 members of the staff, including 5 of the illustrators. After this tragic terrorist attack, the survivors decided that the journal should continue and released one week after the “survivor edition”, featuring a satirical cartoon about prophet Mahomet on the front page since then, the public opinion is divided about Charlie Hebdo. On one side those who thinks they deserved what happened to them, and on the other side those who thinks that they have the right to freedom of speech in every situation.

Now, a little background check on Matador: This Colombian cartoonist, born in 1969, and whose real name is Julio Cesar Gonzalez drew his first cartoons for the periodic El Fuerte, before getting to draw for La Tarde, El Espectador, Portafolio, Soho and finally El Tiempo, the best-selling journal in Colombia. He his nationally known for his criticism through his comics, especially towards former president and actual senator Alvaro Uribe Velez and his right- wing party, el Centro Democratico, represented by Ivan Duque Marquez in the current presidential election in Colombia. Due to a growing number of death threats, he decided to suspend his activity on social medias two weeks ago (but he will continue to get his work published inside El Tiempo).

Cartoons from Charlie Hebdo  

This is the translated front page of the magazine a week after the 2015 terrorist  attack, Prophet with an ironically shaped head.

This controversial cover from 2013 reads, “The Quran is shit – It does not stop bullets.” French Islamists actually sued the magazine for blasphemy after this edition.

This cover from August 2017 refers to the terrorist attack in Barcelona few days before. It says “Islam, religion of peace...for the eternity”

Cartoons from Matador (Colombia) 

This comic from Matador was censored and lead to a lawsuit due to the controversy depicted in the drawing.

This comic followed the previous one by hitting even harder the attackers of Matador.

Supporters and attackers of Charlie & Matador

Despite being a target for a long time, the Charlie Hebdo illustrators continue to provide the magazine sensitive drawings, even after having to endure a terrorist attack. Many staff members of the redaction do have a personal 24/7 police escort assigned to them (one of the 2015 attack victim was even a policeman assigned to the protection of the illustrator Charb). Despite having the public opinion being them due to this awful event, most believe that the journal often goes too far. Pope Francis even took position regarding Charlie Hebdo and said “Freedom of speech is a fundamental right, but should not insult other’s beliefs”. The front page of the “survivor edition” made a lot of debate internationally. This edition was censored in Egypt, Israel and Turkey, and led to violent manifestations toward French cultural site and French expatriated people in Pakistan, Niger, Senegal, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali, Sudan, Jordania, Iran, Afghanistan and Chechenia.

Concerning Matador, he is despised by the Uribists, also known as the followers of Alvaro Uribe and other followers of el Centro Democratico, as their leaders are often the targets of these cartoons, but on the other hand, most of the other political leaders support Matador, saying that he has the freedom of speech and should of course continue to work and publish what he wants to.