After the attacks that targeted staff at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo one year ago today, many media outlets chose to censor the cartoon of the prophet Muhammad that provoked Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists responsible for the massacre.
Though the magazine covers featuring the cartoon quickly became a hot news subject, the media naturally faced a dilemma: to stick it to the terrorists by publishing the cartoon, or to refrain from showing the cartoons in anticipation of angering Al Qaeda sympathizers that might react similarly. Most newspapers and media networks, including the Big Three (MSNBC, CNN, AP), opted for the latter by either reducing to publish the cartoon or blurring the image of Muhammad.
At the time, CNN ordered producers in an email not to run the cartoon but to describe it instead. “This is key to understanding the nature of the attack on the magazine and the tension between free expression and respect for religion,” the email read.
But when Charlie Hebdo published another controversial cover to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the massacre, this time depicting what seems to be a Judeo-Christian God as the terrorist, the media changed their approach.
The January 4 cover reads: “One year later, the killer is still running loose.”
Charlie Hebdo marks one year since the massacre with a murderous God on its cover. The suspects are still at large. pic.twitter.com/8uGdAzDmZi— Breaking News Feed (@pzf) January 4, 2016
The cover will undoubtedly offend people of various religions (L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, already denounced the cartoon as "blasphemous" earlier this week), but it can’t be said that it specifically targets Islam.
This year CNN apparently perceived a change in either the “nature” of a potential threat or in its goal to honor “free expression and respect for religion.
NBC Universal also issued a ban for all of its affiliates, ordering producers at NBC, MSNBC and CNBC “not to show any headline or cartoons that could be viewed as insensitive.”
MSNBC seems to have ignored the restriction this year:
The Associated Press, who refrained from publishing the Muhammad cartoon, said last year in a statement, “It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.”
This year, the AP initially breeched its policy, releasing a dozen photos of the cover for editorial purchase. But after the Washington Post pressed the outlet for the inconsistency, an AP spokesman responded, “12 photos have been taken down from AP Images, which is the commercial photo licensing unit of AP. The photos came from two content partners that have a direct feed into AP Images.”
And the New York Times, who claimed religious respect as the reason for not printing the infamous cartoon of Muhammad, covered stories on a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI made of condoms, as well as a urine-submered Crucifix, including photos of the “artwork” each time.
The Times ran a piece on the new Hebdo cover but neglected to identify the cartoon’s subject as “God,” but rather as “a bearded figure.”
The inconsistent responses to the new cartoon have many questioning whether the issue at hand has anything to do with respect for religion, or if it is really about the fear of violent backlash from extremists.