As the sun set in Rio de Janeiro Sunday, beachgoers dotted the sands of Ipanema 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 “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 other cities around the world that stood in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo magazine, the satirical publication where twelve people were killed Wednesday following an ambush by two gunmen. The victims included editor Stephane “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 “Le Marseillaise” anthem. Despite being front-page news around the world, a group of Speedo-clad onlookers asked “Who is Charlie? who is that guy?”
The march ended at the Our Lady of Peace plaza, where the signs were posted onto a construction fence and left on display.
“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 a controversial drawing connecting the decline in national health care to late president Hugo Chavez, tweeted her illustration of armed snipers threatening billboards with happy faces.
Brazilian artist Carlos Latuff was among those who tweeted “#JeNeSuisPasCharlie” (“I am not Charlie” in French), accusing the magazine of being blasphemous and criticizing global reaction as being pro-Israel and one-sided. In his first drawing following the attack, Latuff showed two shooters at the entrance of Charlie Hedbo headquarters and a bullet-riddled mosque in the background.
Another drawing 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. The violence against journalists in Latin America is not usually done by groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda or in the name of religion. It is carried out by drug lords, vigilantes, corrupt officials and/or fanatical 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,” while 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 Royal Elcano Institute wrote 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.”
According to Mexico’s “El Universal” newspaper, more than one-hundred journalists were killed between 2000 and 2014.
Mexican Journalist Katia D’Artigues wrote she was almost “envious” of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, not because of the crime but because of the reactions that have unfolded 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.”
Venezuela’s President Nicolas 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 recently condemned by the Inter American Press Society during its General Assembly last October. The organization highlighted 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.”
A version of this post was published by "America's Quarterly" on January 13, 2015.