Charlie Hebdo cartoons: To publish or not to publish

Father Matthew Ramsay complained that CBC News had a double standard because management said they did not publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed out of respect for Muslims’ religious sensibility but they did publish cartoons that mocked Catholicism. It’s complicated....


You were concerned that CBC was employing a double standard during its coverage of the murder of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. You pointed to an opinion piece by Neil Macdonald presented on The National in which he stated that there was a fence around Islam and no other religions when it came to causing offence. You said:

I’m linking to a Neil Macdonald commentary piece because he flatly admits the problem. The CBC is willing to show Charlie Hebdo images that mock Christianity but refrains from showing those that mock Islam, even though those are clearly the more newsworthy images. It’s seemed to me in the past that the CBC had a double standard, for example, showing “piss Christ” and not the Danish anti-Mohammad cartoons, but it’s never been this blatant. What steps will the CBC take to put a stop to this double standard?

After receiving a reply from CBC management, you further articulated your concerns. You pointed out that in the coverage since you had written the first time, you had seen a news story which showed some of the offensive Charlie Hebdo cartoons. You said two of the three would be offensive to Christians. And you said they were unnecessary for the understanding of the story and therefore “gratuitously offensive.”

You questioned how CBC measures offense:

To be blunt, unless you have mind readers at the CBC, you can’t possibly know how subjectively offended a particular person is, much less a population of millions in Canada and billions around the world. Objectively speaking, an image in a jar of urine seems more offensive than an image on a magazine. (I acknowledge that some Muslims have responded violently and protested in the streets, which Christians are less likely to do, but I’m sure you don’t want to take the extremists’ response as indicative of the entire faith.)

You challenged the explanation that Muslims find any depiction of Mohammed offensive. You said “many thoughtful Muslims have come out and said the prohibition is not in fact universal.” You noted that CBC has covered this fact and wondered if it would change their practice. You said the coverage showing the magazine covers illustrated the double standard at play because Catholics have rules against “mocking the Blessed Sacrament (as do both of the Charlie Hebdo covers in the story linked to above.) Yet, you said, you obey the prohibition not to show Mohammed.

You wanted to be clear that you did not think the solution lay in insulting Islam, but to show more respect for Christianity. You want CBC to show the same sensitivity you say it shows to Islam to other religions as well:

Am I asking you to insult Islam? No; that would be me being a jerk. Am I asking you to go easy on my faith? Not exactly. I know that my church has not always been above criticism, and I hope that when we mess up, you’ll be willing to offend us and point it out. I suppose what I’m asking for is more sensitivity and awareness from you about how faiths other than Islam are portrayed. Coming full circle, I guess your [CBC management’s] point about gratuitous offense is a good one. Showing images offensive to Catholics at exactly the same time you’re explaining why you won’t show images offensive to Islam seems insensitive and tone deaf. I’d like the CBC to acknowledge that and show more awareness in the future.


Jack Nagler, the Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, responded to your concerns. He told you that CBC News used many cartoons from Charlie Hebdo in the course of their coverage of the events in Paris. Among those cartoons, he said, were satirical cartoons about Islam. He added: “What we did not broadcast were cartoons that included an image of Muhammad.

He told you CBC made a decision to show enough of the Charlie Hebdo material “to give our viewers and readers an understanding of the often biting quality of the satirical newspaper, but to avoid showing the deeply offensive cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.” He pointed out many other newspapers and broadcasters took the same position.

He addressed your concern about the use of imagery offensive to Christians, notably the Piss Christ story you had mentioned:

With respect, the comparison you suggested to the Piss Christ story is not particularly relevant. While the photograph may well have offended some Christians, it does not approach the widespread and profound offense Muslims take at images of the Prophet Muhammad.

To be clear, Piss Christ is a small photograph taken some 30 years ago now by Andres Serrano, an American artist and photographer, showing a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of yellow liquid, which Serrano described as his urine. In subsequent years it has been the subject of some protest and controversy.

To my knowledge, CBC News did not cover the story in 1987 when the image first appeared. In 2010, the CBC Radio arts program Q briefly referred to it during a discussion of art and the church. The program interviewed the Rev. Jennie Hogan, who had argued in a recent article in The Guardian that in order to become interesting and relevant again, the church should embrace contemporary art, including art that criticized religion. On the Q web page, the brief online synopsis of the interview that day included a small image of the photograph and said, “And for her, that would include something as controversial as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ”.


You have raised some important questions about how and why journalists make choices about what material they use to convey a story. The first principle of journalism is its obligation to getting at the truth. That means that in the telling of stories and the conveying of images, there is a likelihood that it will give offense to some people.

It is not a principle of journalism to avoid being offensive. Rather the idea is to accurately convey important information, to consider the public interest, and to minimize the offense or harm that might be done.

These are not precise matters, so there is no list of what is acceptable, no point on some scale that says do not go past here. It is always a question of journalistic purpose on one axis as it were, and the degree of offense on the other. You are right that CBC news staff cannot be mind readers – but they can do their best to think about the value of the images in conveying the story, and the degree and impact of offense it might cause in a particular context.

Context is the most critical factor. CBC journalistic policy reflects the fact that at best there can be guidelines, but to use an image or not remains a judgment call. There are two policies that pertain – they are written with reference to language, but equally apply to imagery. One is entitled “Respect and Absence of Prejudice” and in part it states:

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.

When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.

The second relevant policy follows right after this one and is entitled “Words that Shock” (you only have to replace “words” with “images”).

To describe certain realities or report adequately on certain situations, it is sometimes necessary to use expressions or quotations that may be shocking to part of the audience. In these circumstances, we limit ourselves to what is necessary for understanding, we attribute the statements where applicable and we take care to present them in proper context.

We ensure that, taking into account the context in which the words are published, they are not likely to expose anyone to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or physical or mental disability. We refer to senior editorial management in case of doubt.

We respect the audience’s degree of tolerance, with due regard for society’s generally shared values.

The real story of Charlie Hebdo was not its vicious cartoons, which border, if not at times cross into what is arguably hate speech. The real story was that twelve people were murdered in Paris because they exercised their right to free speech, even though many found their publication offensive. CBC News made some choices, based on its policies, about how they would tell that story. It is a valid editorial choice to conclude it could be told without showing the precise cartoons that triggered the attack.

Freedom of expression is as real for those media organizations who did not choose to publish the cartoons as it is for those who did. There was no violation of CBC journalistic policy in making that editorial choice. But as you stated, your objection was not so much the lack of publication but your perception that one group, Muslims, were treated differently than another group – Christians. You were not alone in that assertion based on the many emails I received.

In reviewing CBC News coverage I note that CBC used a range of cartoon images to illustrate the anti-clerical nature of Charlie Hebdo and what an outlier it is. CBC coverage showed cartoons with images of all faith groups, including Islam, depicted in very negative ways. Among them are ones that you found particularly offensive. There is journalistic purpose in the use of the images, and I did not find their use gratuitous.

You asked that there be the same standard for all religious sensibilities. I agree with you that the concerns of every faith group should be carefully considered. The challenge is the judgment call that must be made in each case, and to carefully consider the context and the potential harm. You refer to a double standard. That implies there has been an arbitrary application of a single standard. And that is not necessarily the case. It may be appropriate to bring different measures, based on an understanding of shared values and the degree of tolerance.

When I spoke to David Studer, CBC’s Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices, he explained that the decision was made not simply to avoid offence to Muslims, but to avoid portraying images that a great many Muslims find a fundamental insult to their faith. You point out that many “thoughtful” Muslims say the prohibition is not universal. He told me he was aware of that fact, but that a very large proportion say it is. You point out that there are similar rules in Catholicism against mocking the Blessed Sacrament, which is what a cartoon used in one story had shown. In an op-ed piece he wrote for The Toronto Star, University of Guelph philosophy professor John Hacker-Wright points out there is in fact a different cultural and historical context that deserves consideration:

Many Westerners have a high degree of tolerance for insults to religion, for a variety of reasons. Some have no religious commitments or very casual commitments. In part, this is due to financial prosperity and the fading importance of religion as a source of meaning. Even among deeply religious individuals in the West there seems to be a relatively high tolerance for insult, and this has historical roots that go back to the Reformation.

The gradual march toward liberalism has generated a noisy and impartially offensive public sphere: no one is spared from insult. Consequently, I doubt that many serious Catholics take much notice or offence at insulting depictions of the Pope. For the sake of sanity, they have learned to just shut it out. We may think that Muslims reading the Charlie Hebdo comics should probably respond just the same way as a Catholic would to a mocking comic of the Pope. Why can serious Muslims not simply ignore it? The answer lies in historical, cultural difference: ignoring such messages is something we have learned from our particular, Western history.

In a Liberal society, we have a tradition of free expression; for better or worse, we have built a tolerance for that which we might find personally offensive because it is our experience of a free and democratic society.

There is a messiness about all of this, because it is based on judgment and assumption and cultural experience. There is no argument that the images used in this case were offensive. In the context they were used and the choices made, there was no violation of CBC Journalistic Policy.

Undoubtedly there are times when there are misjudgments – where the hurt outweighs any justification for the use of images – whether they are offensive on religious grounds or they are profoundly disturbing in other ways. The Piss Christ example may very well be one of those. I did not go back and examine it in great detail because it appeared on the Q website five years ago.

Your concerns are a reminder that each use of potentially offensive images must be carefully scrutinized. News managers I spoke to assure me that they do take the time to scrutinize and think about the material they run.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman