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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Charlie Hebdo Controversy Raises Ethical Questions on a Global Scale

The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is notorious for causing controversy. Long before the January 2015 attack on the publication’s journalists, cartoonists were raising eyebrows with images that some people found to be distasteful at best and racist at worst.

Apologists for the magazine have always responded by invoking the political power of satire, as well as the press’s right to free speech.

Now Charlie Hebdo is embroiled in another controversy, this one centering on the publication’s depiction of Syrian refugees struggling—often unsuccessfully—to make it safely to Europe. The social media sphere has exploded in debate, with some commentators asserting that Charlie is mocking Syrian refugees like 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, and others declaring that the magazine is actually criticizing the European nations that have failed to help the Syrian migrants.

This debate raises ethical questions that are inevitably global in nature. As the media ethicist Stephen Ward argues, “Global power entails global responsibility.” This means that a globally recognized outlet like Charlie Hebdo doesn’t get to simply be a “French” magazine anymore, speaking only to a French audience. In fact, this publication can’t even claim to be strictly “European,” especially now that people around the world have held vigils, saying “We are all Charlie.”

It’s time for publications like Charlie Hebdo to stop pretending that they only have a national or regional audience. That means paying more attention to the diverse perspectives of an increasingly global public. It also means being more transparent about who and what these cartoons are actually for. If “we are all Charlie,” then Charlie might benefit from thinking about all of us.

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