San Diegans On Targeting Journalists
KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday spoke with three San Diegans — a journalism professor, a cartoonist and the editor of an alternative weekly — about the killing of 12 people, including eight journalists, at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine.
The publication has faced threats before, including having its offices destroyed in a bomb attack after printing a drawing in 2011 of the Prophet Muhammad.
Here are excerpts of the comments by KPBS Midday Edition’s guests:
Maureen Cavanaugh: Our top story on Midday Edition, the French nation as well as journalism outlets across Europe are on high alert after today’s deadly attack on the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. KPBS will keep you up-to-date through the day on the search for the three gunmen wanted in the Paris attack. Right now though, we want to focus on what these and other attacks maybe doing to our freedom of expression. Today’s massacre in Paris which killed ten journalists and two policemen was not the first attack against cartoonists, reporters or editors because of what they write. And those attacks have not all come from one group or ideology. Joining me is Dean Nelson, he is director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. And Dean welcome to the program. Dean Nelson: I’m happy to be here, Maureen. Thank you. Maureen Cavanaugh: David Rolland is editor of San Diego CityBeat. Dave, hi. David Rolland: Hi Maureen. Maureen Cavanaugh: And Batton Lash is a San Diego based cartoonist, published on the website BigHollywood.com. Batton, thanks for coming in. Batton Lash: Thanks, Maureen. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now Dean, from the reporting surrounding this attack there seems little doubt that the gunmen targeted these victims because they worked for the satirical newspaper. Is this the worst attack on journalists because of their work that you’ve heard of? Dean Nelson: It may be the worst in one singular moment that I’m aware of in recent history but journalists get targeted by many different groups for many different reasons and there’s clearly been accumulative killing of journalists more so in the last few years than you would think. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now journalists, cartoonists have been targets of threats and many of them have been threatened for their writings or their drawings of the Prophet Mohammed. So even though we are shocked should we be surprised by this attack? Dean Nelson: All right, I think anytime someone kills someone for expressing an idea or even being satirical about a religion, yeah I think you should be shocked. Maybe not surprised on the one hand but this is a shocking thing and it’s a terrible thing. Maureen Cavanaugh: Dave, I’m wondering do these journalists especially in countries that have had repeated threats from extremists, should they know that what they are engaged in is risky business? David Rolland: Yes, I think a few years ago we had the Danish publication that published provocative cartoons on Islam extremists. So I think yeah, if you’re paying attention you need to be concerned about what you publish. I mean here in this country it hasn’t been, looking for wood to knock on here, hasn’t been that much of a danger. This morning when I heard about it, it kind of makes you turn white a little bit and sort of snaps you back into a certain reality that you don’t, that we here I don’t confront. I’m lucky that I don’t have to make the commitment to die for journalistic freedom. So it’s scary and yeah people should be on alert. Maureen Cavanaugh: And yet Batton there is a cartoonist from the Seattle area who actually is in, I believe she changed her identity. Batton Lash: Her is Molly, her name was Molly Norris and she was under the foolish assumption that we had free speech here and after the South Park episode where they poked fun at Mohammed and Comedy Central censored any image of Mohammed she was a little outraged and said, hey let’s do Draw Mohammed Day. And there was a jihad put on her and the FBI told her this is serious, you got to go into hiding. This is very little reported, as far as I know she is still in hiding. I’m a little shocked and ashamed with the American press that they have not followed up on this as much as they should because as we’ve seen what happened today in France the pen is mightier than the sword and we should all double down and say we’re not going to put up with this and let consequences be damned. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now Dave, in this business we all have editorial staff meetings. And this came apparently was targeted at an editorial staff meeting that this magazine had at a precise time during the week, when you hear about that it’s really chilling, isn’t it? David Rolland: Well sure, and Batton talks about we should double down and not take this and fight back and that gets a little bit dicey when you’re talking, it depends on who you are as a journalist and what your publication is, what the intention of the publication is. A lot of people don’t go into the business to become a martyr and especially people who worked for on the advertising side or in the production department, I mean you could possibly be putting more than yourself and more than your editorial team if you discussed it and talk about that, you could be putting everybody at risk. Maureen Cavanaugh: And Dean, just for clarification and context, I think that it’s important to point out that French satirical magazines have a tendency to be a bit more daring than most US publications. Isn’t there a tradition in France of really biting satirical writing? Dean Nelson: I think there is a tradition all throughout Europe that is much more biting and what we would consider to be really sensitive issues than there is in the US. The Danes for instance, or the Dutch, Scandinavians in general, the French yeah they can be vicious, but I mean that’s been part of their communication history. I mean we do it to a certain degree in this country. We celebrate Monty Python and the Life of Brian for instance and there were some religious depictions in a lot of their work that, I mean some Christians were offended, I’m a Christian but I wasn’t offended, I thought they were hilarious. But the French take it up a notch clearly and have a rich history of that that goes back to the 1700s. Maureen Cavanaugh: So you have that that tradition in France and in much of Europe of this really biting satire and on the other hand there seems to be this lack of tolerance for this growing intolerance of it. We’re talking about Muslim extremists but also I just want to put in that we just have this issue from North Korea where North Korea threatened to a terrorist attack apparently because of a movie making fun of their leader. Dean Nelson: Right. I’m not sure there are more people who are intolerant, I think there’s been hundreds of years obscuring of sacred images and sacred cows and now though there seem, I’m not sure there are more people who are intolerant I wonder if the means by which they show their intolerance have just gotten more vicious. Maureen Cavanaugh: Dave, what do you think about that? David Rolland: About what in particular? Maureen Cavanaugh: About the idea of, do you think that there’s a sort of squeeze happening, that the level of satire is being ratcheted up and the amount of intolerance is increasing? David Rolland: It’s hard for me to say, I mean I’m not a historian when it comes to these things. I only have sort of a brief window of watching, it does seem people, the tension to me seems to be ratcheting up all the time but I can’t say if that’s just my prism that I’m looking through or what? Maureen Cavanaugh: Now, Batton you are a cartoonist. David Rolland: Yes. Maureen Cavanaugh: Cartoonists have been singled out by threats. Does that make you think twice about what you draw? Batton Lash: I’ll tell you the truth. As Dean mentioned that about the French having a higher level of satire and could be very biting and here we could be biting too but maybe with a little TLC involved. But at the same time the French they’re bombed and over here we’re just shunned. I mean I find the current climate of micro aggression a form of censorship where you don’t even know if you’re insulting someone. So I have to admit in the back of my head when I do my strips, even my non-political stuff I think, oh am I insulting someone indivertibly but then I have to say, slap myself and say forget it, come on, a cartoonist’s job as far as I was concerned growing up with MAD magazine and Monty Python and all that good stuff is nothing sacred. Now we’re finding out well something is sacred and I don’t buy it. Maureen Cavanaugh: Have you ever been threatened or gotten really hostile reaction to one of your cartoons? Batton Lash: I’ve gotten hostile reaction, my collaborator was actually threatened. I used to do cartoons for Breitbart, BigHollywood.com and BigGovernment.com and we would just do these things about the Obama Administration and his cabinet and they were fluffed but we did one and I distinctly remember my collaborator James Hudnall who wrote the cartoons sent me one and apologized and said I know this joke is kind of lame but we’ll do better next week. Well, that was the one that hit the fan and my wife and I were both in the isle of storm for two days, we got threatening phone calls, I shouldn’t say threatening just hate phone calls and hate mails, Hudnall was actually threatened with his life. And I was called a racist and I was called all these ugly things and it was just a silly cartoon about what I saw as a double standard that the Obama, that wasn’t even political. Maureen Cavanaugh: Dean, why do you think is these images, it seems to be images that really set people off? Dean Nelson: Yeah, that’s a great question. If you believe that there is the kind of– if you do any kind of an image of the Prophet Mohammed or God that apparently some view it as blasphemy and you take your religion to that level then you just have to say well the Quran or the scriptures of the holy writings demand that I respond this way. I think that’s outrageous actually and can’t imagine any other aspect of society where just the drawing of an image, I’m thinking of the Jewish tradition or the Christian tradition that people have been securing different faiths for centuries but this one in particular seems to draw the most extreme response. Maureen Cavanaugh: And David? David Rolland: Yeah, I mean killing for religion is to me it’s psychotic. I mean people say oh this is cowardly what they did and that’s sort of a political term, political rhetorical term that people use but really I mean I would describe it is as psychotic, it is a mental illness to me. And there is so much mental illness in the world, in this country, everywhere. And you just have to be, I mean my first reaction is to want to fight back. As a journalist my first inclination is to almost maybe be well just first stand in solidarity with somebody a journalist who is attacked for presenting ideas but they didn’t even just sort of and want to be offensive for being offensive’s sake but that’s when you got to go, wait a minute you got it. First of all you got to have a good reason and you have to be careful because you are not just playing with your own life, you are playing with the lives of people around you. Maureen Cavanaugh: I just want to make the point that there is certain headline grabbing political element to the fact that these journalists seems to have been targeted by what it apparently Islamic extremists and these attackers were caught on videotape so the world can see it but there have been deadly attacks on journalists say in Mexico, in Central America across the world that hardly get any publicity. David Rolland: Exactly and this was my original point when we first started this conversation is that journalists have been dying at an alarming rate in Mexico and in the rest of Central America for trying to report on drug cartels or corruption in government. If you want a death sentence put on you in Russia start talking about corruption in the Russian government and with the oil companies. Russia and Mexico are two of the most dangerous places to be journalists in the world right now. There’s a very, very serious in my view movement about shooting the messenger literally shooting the messenger that has accumulated some very, very high numbers in recent years. I’m not trying to minimize what it’s happening in France, this is a horrible tragic outrageous thing that happened in France but a lot more than 12 journalists died last year in Mexico trying to report about the drug problems. Maureen Cavanaugh: Batton, I’m going to let you have the last word. Batton Lash: Okay. And along those lines I mean it’s all well and good that we’re opening up dialog with Cuba but Cuba has been horrible towards political cartoonists and there are still prisoners I mean they were taking their pens away and throwing into jail. Maureen Cavanaugh: We’re all trying to still make sense of this and as I said KPBS is going to be following this story through the day. I want to thank you all for speaking with me about it in this early stage. Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. David Rolland is editor of San Diego CityBeat and Batton Lash is a San Diego based cartoonist. Thank you all very much. Batton Lash: Thank you Maureen. David Rolland: Thank you. Maureen Cavanaugh: Coming up more humane cages boost the price of eggs in California, it’s 12:21. You are listening to KPBS Midday Edition.
Dean Nelson, director of the Point Loma Nazarene University Journalism Program, said journalists have been dying at an “alarming rate in recent years,” especially in Mexico and in Central America. He added:
It may be the worst in one singular moment that I’m aware of in recent history but journalists get targeted by many different groups for many different reasons. I think any time someone kills someone for expressing an idea or even being satirical about a religion, I think you should be shocked. This is a shocking thing and it’s a terrible thing.
The satire displayed in publications like Charlie Hebdo is nothing new for Europe, Nelson said. News publications “can be vicious,” he said. “That’s been a part of their communication history. We do it to a certain degree in this country, but the French take it up a notch, clearly, and have a rich history of that—it goes back to the 1700s.”
David Rolland, editor of the alternative weekly San Diego CityBeat, said the shooting is a reminder of the dangers many journalists face. He said:
A few years ago we had the Danish publication that published provocative cartoons on Islamist extremists. If you’re paying attention, you need to be concerned about what you published. Here in this country, it hasn’t been that much of danger. It kind of makes you turn white a little bit and snaps you back into a certain reality that I, here, don’t have to confront. I don’t have to make the commitment to die for journalistic freedom.
Batton Lash, a cartoonist best known for comic book Supernatural Law, said he once received “hate phone calls and hate mails” for a cartoon he did. He added:
The pen is mightier than the sword. We should all double down and say we’re not going to put up with this. Cuba has been horrible toward political cartoonists. They’ve taken their pens away and have thrown them in jail.
City News Service also interviewed a UC San Diego professor whose fields of interest include the Middle East and terrorism. He said the deadly Paris attack could be part of a new era of terrorism in which young men trained in conflicts in the Middle East return to Western Europe and the U.S. full of anger and motivation.
"It's a legitimate security concern," said Eli Berman, an economics professor and research director for international security studies at the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.
Hundreds of young men who have fought with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have returned home to places where they are familiar with the culture, speak the language and can blend in with the local populace, Berman said. It's difficult to defend against such people, he said.
In the attack on Charlie Hebdo, he said, amateur video shows "perpetrators who were trained." They knew how to fire their weapons, were familiar enough with their target that they knew they had to get someone to let them in through a security door, made sure that one of the police officers was dead, and managed to escape, Berman said.
"This would tell me that they're veterans of ISIS in Syria or Iraq," he said. "That's scary because there's hundreds of them who have come back."