The brutal attacks on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo have, as of this writing, left 12 people dead, including every cartoonist who worked for the satirical magazine. While the killers are still at large, the murders are widely understood to be a response to the weekly’s history of printing comics critical of Muslim fundamentalism, including republishing the 2005 images of the prophet Mohammed first published in a in a Danish newspaper. (The latter was condemned as an “overt provocation” by then-President Jacques Chirac.) Charlie Hebdo relocated and added security after a 2011 firebombing, which came the day after printing another caricature of the prophet, but it was not enough to stop the three gunmen who stormed their new offices today, reportedly yelling “Allahu Akbar” and instructing witnesses to “tell the media that we are from Al-Qaida in the Yemen.”
Whether you view Charlie Hebdo’s late cartoonists as martyred truth-tellers or crude anti-Muslim provocateurs, as brave, indomitable or simply reckless, they knowingly placed themselves in harm’s way and stood by the courage of their convictions, which makes the comparatively spineless behavior of the powerful media conglomerates that own Sony Pictures and America’s movie theaters with regard to the threats against “The Interview” even harder to stomach. Just as it took a tiny satirical weekly to stand up where major newspapers would not — the Guardian, in reporting on the tragedy, is using pictures of Charlie Hebdo with the potentially offending images digitally obscured — so it took independently owned theaters to step up where major theater chains ran for cover. It was a chilling reminder of the fatal flaw in the U.S.’ commitment to freedom of speech: Where mass media is concerned, that freedom exists only in so far as it is supported by the public corporations that control the means of dissemination. As the journalist A.J. Liebling remarked, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
Another sobering reminder: As pointed out by Time’s James Poniewozik, the 2010 “South Park” episode “201,” which parodied Comedy Central’s decision to censor images of Muhammad from an earlier episode, is still not available to watch in uncensored form, and is not available for streaming anywhere. (Update: Poniewozik has his own column on the connection here.) Comedy Central, which is owned by Viacom, the world’s fourth-largest entertainment conglomerate, massively censored the episode before it aired, using audio bleeps to obscure not only mentions of Mohammed’s name but several entire monologues, including one where Jesus Christ (this is “South Park,” after all)” concludes, “Don’t you see… if you don’t want to be made fun of anymore, all you need are guns and bombs to get people to stop.”
Fortunately, some intrepid hackers found their way into Comedy Central’s servers and downloaded an un-Bowdlerized copy. Watch it, and think about the fact that the company that continues to suppress it also owns Paramount Pictures and more than 160 cable networks. It doesn’t take fanatics with guns to kill freedom of speech, just corporations with stockholders where their spines should be.