Freedom of speech

Je Suis Charlie. I am Charlie.

Thousands of French men and women packed into central Paris in a show of unity against terrorism following the horrific killings by masked and hooded men who stormed the offices of the Satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

During the violent attack, 12 people, including two policemen and eight journalists, were killed before the three men armed with Kalashnikovs fled in a car.

Others have been left fighting for their lives.

As they left, the three gunmen were said to have been shouting ''Allahu akbar'' - God is great.

Police say the three men, later identified, have links to the Yemeni terrorist network.

The attack comes amid mounting tension about immigration in France and what many non-Muslim French see as a rising Islamic influence in society.

The Islamic State extremist group has previously warned it intends attacking France.

The magazine has itself frequently been criticised - and prosecuted under ant-racism laws - for publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

Its offices were fire-bombed in 2011 after it published a spoof cover featuring a cartoon of the Muslim prophet.

The killings at Charlie Hebdo are a deeply unwelcome reminder to the West that for some, mainly young radicalised men, their fundamentalist interpretation of their religion matters enough to kill those who offend it.

As a result, across western Europe, liberally-minded societies are beginning to divide over how best to deal with radical Islamism and its impact on their countries, while governments agonise over the potential for a backlash against Muslims living in Europe.

Mainstream Muslim organisations in the United Kingdom, France and other countries, including New Zealand, have unequivocally condemned the killings, saying terrorism is an affront to Islam.

Most of us have never encountered Charlie Hebdo but we now know the magazine was fearless in the face of threats. Fearless to the death.

At least 60 journalists were killed last year while on the job or because of their work.

About a quarter of those killed were international journalists, though the overwhelming number of journalists threatened continue to be locally-based, the Committee to Protect Journalists says.

The number of journalists killed last year was down on the 70 killed the year before but the past three years have been the deadliest since records started in 1992.

According to the committee, 44% of journalists were targeted for murder this year.

Mainstream media has received wide criticism both in New Zealand and practically every country in which a free press operates.

But despite knowing the dangers of the work, journalists probe deep into the workings of governments and organisations, exposing corruption and tales of horror which would stay hidden without their work.

Freedom of speech is not just a Western concept, it is the right of every human being - a basic human right which is sadly not supported in as many territories as it should. Journalists act on behalf of those powerless to defend themselves.

The French authorities confirmed the shooting was politically motivated.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key summed up the thoughts of many when he said the targeting of journalists going about their daily work is an attack on the fourth estate and the democratic principles of freedom of speech and expression, which must be strongly condemned.

But the potential backlash, including support for far right parties and groups, may well hurt ordinary Muslims more than anyone else, leaving the authorities and religious leaders around the world wondering how to confront violence in the name of religion without victimising minorities or being accused of ''Islamophobia''.

Today, we can show support for the slain by three simple words: Je Suis Charlie.

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