As the sun set in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, beachgoers dotted the sands of Ipanema beach under the sweltering heat. At the base of the Arpoador rock, the neighborhood’s famous lookout point, a group gathered with French flags and paper signs reading, “Je Suis Charlie” (“I Am Charlie”) in both Portuguese and French. In the middle of the crowd, a man held a surfboard with the same motto spray-painted in red ink.
The Brazilian city joined hundreds of others around the world that stood in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo magazine, the satirical publication where twelve people were killed last Wednesday, following an ambush by two gunmen. The victims included editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, as well as Jean “Cabu” Cabut and Georges Wolinski, two of the country’s top political cartoonists.
Nearly five hundred French nationals and Brazilians paraded down Ipanema’s Viera Souto Avenue, holding pencils in the air and singing France’s “Le Marseillaise” anthem.
“I think it is essential for us to defend freedom of speech and a free press,” Matthieu Romancant, a French architect living in Rio, said. “These are values that exist at the core of my country and that are universal.”
Political cartoonists throughout Latin America reacted to the news on Twitter and in interviews on local media.
Argentine artist Liniers tweeted a drawing of a man with a paint brush in one hand and a Charlie Hebdo magazine in the other displaying a peace sign on the cover.
Venezuelan Rayma Suprani, who was recently fired from the daily El Universal after drawing a controversial cartoon connecting the decline in national health care to late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, tweeted her illustration of armed snipers threatening billboards with happy faces.
However, support for the controversial French magazine was not unanimous. Brazilian artist Carlos Latuff was among those who tweeted “#JeNeSuisPasCharlie” (“I Am Not Charlie”), accusing the magazine of being blasphemous and criticizing global reaction as pro-Israel and one-sided. In his first drawing following the attack, Latuff showed two shooters at the entrance of Charlie Hebdo headquarters and a bullet-riddled mosque in the background.
Another one of Latuff’s cartoons showed a giant fist with the word “Islamophobia” written on it and a Muslim family at the bottom reading the newspaper. In a separate tweet, Latuff wrote: “Islamophobics are delighted with #CharlieHebdo attack! They have now a golden opportunity to bash Muslims for a long time!”
In a region where freedom of speech has faced its own hurdles, it is not surprising to see mixed reactions to the Charlie Hedbo attacks. But the violence against journalists in Latin America is not usually done in the name of religion—it is carried out by criminal organizations, drug lords, vigilantes and/or oppressive political groups or separatists.
Most Latin American leaders expressed their solidarity for France and the victims.
Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos tweeted “life, freedom of expression and a free press are universal rights that cannot be violated.”
Peruvian President Ollanta Humala wrote to French President Francois Hollande, “The government of Peru rejects all acts of terrorism and violence, no matter what the motivation, and reiterates its position to respect human life, the right to security and peaceful coexistence among all people and religious groups and the right to freedom of expression.”
Chilean president Michelle Bachelet appeared in a picture yesterday during her tour of the Chilean arctic with a “Je Suis Charlie” sign.
However, researcher Carlos Malamud from the Spanish think tank Elcano Royal Institute wrote that some of the condolence messages from Latin American dignitaries did not connect the attacks to a violation of freedom of speech.
“An explicit reference by the Mexican government and others from the region would have been much appreciated. Considering the policies that exist against the press in some of these places, its omission is not surprising.”
On his official Twitter account, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto wrote, “Mexico condemns the attacks against the weekly Charlie Hedbo and expresses its condolences to the French government and French society.”
Mexican Journalist Katia D’Artigues wrote she was almost “envious” of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, not because of the crime but because of the resulting expressions of support for free speech in France.
“In France, this attack takes place and a very unpopular president visits the site of the crime and declares three days of national mourning. In Mexico, in the face of a succession of attacks, a very unpopular president has given minimal publicity to gatherings that question the reality faced by journalists [in Mexico] and human rights defenders. How many times has Enrique Peña Nieto spoken about this subject since being elected? None.”
According to Mexico’s El Universal newspaper, more than one hundred journalists were killed in Mexico between 2000 and 2014.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro tweeted, “We transmit our condolences to the family members and friends of the victims, to the government and the French people and, along with the rest of the world, we ask for justice.”
Attacks against the press in Venezuela were condemned by the Inter American Press Society last October. The organization highlighted that the restriction of printing supplies to thirty newspapers throughout the country and the beatings of journalists by police and others during anti-government protests last February were an infringement on free speech.
Mexico, Colombia and Brazil recently appeared on the Committee to Protect Journalists Global Impunity Index, which highlights countries where killers of slain journalists go free.
In Brazil, at least twelve media professionals have been killed in the past five years, and five other cases are still being investigated. Among those victims was Santiago Andrade, a cameraman from local station TV Band who was hit by a firecracker and killed during a protest in Rio last year.
“I wonder if all these people will come out and march next time one of us gets hurt,” a Brazilian cameraman, who asked not to be identified, said as he filmed Sunday’s protest. “It’s much easier to speak out against the horrible things that happen in other countries than to look at our own problems.”