Robbie Travers – Executive Director
Scenes from Paris earlier this week touched many with their highly emotive nature. Marche Republicaine showed a city, country and perhaps continent united behind the ideals of freedom of speech. Also on display, and importantly treasured was the inalienable right to express an opinion, regardless of the potential offence that said opinion will cause. Certainly an overriding message from Europe is audible: satirists may offend, but that is never a valid excuse to murder.
Perhaps what drew the most global media attention, beyond the fact that hundreds of thousands of people in cities, and 3.3 million people across France assembled, drawing larger crowds from Paris to Bordeaux, Marseilles to Lyon, and Nantes to Reims than the fall of the Third Reich, is that the attacks on Paris’ Charlie Hedbo magazine received such strong condemnation from leaders of the international community. This resulted in 40 world leaders, ministers, and dignitaries immediately converging on the rally in Paris to display their national “solidarity” with not only the people of Paris who have been brutally attacked, but also to display their firm solidarity and support for those who exercise the principle of freedom of expression to safeguard others.
However, for many of these world leaders, this was little more than a glamorous photo-shoot to massage their vanity, and if they were the premier of a democracy, a term which I use very lightly in relation to many of the nations mentioned, the rally in Paris served as a chance to boost their approval ratings. Their solidarity begun at the march from Place de la Republique and ended when the march did at Place de la Nation. Many of the attending premiers, ministers and ambassadors’ nation’s record on journalism and press freedom is flimsy at best, maliciously oppressive at worst. A selection of these world leaders expressed what could only be described as faux outrage at events in Paris, when their government even in recent days has been pursuing a policy of persecution, and even continues to do so apres-Charlie Hedbo.
The first member of the march who shall fall under the gaze of my scrutiny, whose nation’s record I shall tackle is that of Bahrain’s Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs. Bahrain continues to maintain that as a government they have “an open doors” policy towards foreign journalists and nauseatingly boast of allowing “80 journalists enter the nation from NGO’s“, yet this attempt to establish a democratic faced hides an altogether more sinister record on journalism that would make even the most oppressive regimes blush. Let us remember, that after China, the nation that has jailed the highest number of journalists per head per population in 2013 is Bahrain.
We also must remember Bahrain government’s brutal torture of detained journalists and dissidents, often beaten with planks that had nails on it, threatened with being executed by firing squad or faced sexual assault. This is the same oppressive regime that justified killing 4, and injuring hundreds of protestors, on the basis that it was “saving the protestors from starting sectarian violence,” the very violence that they later inflicted on secular protestors of many faiths for making their views about the government known. “Bloody Thursday”, was certainly a day in which the notion of Bahrain’s “democratic and free press” was shattered in 2011. What would Charlie Hedbo have said on Bahrain’s record? Probably something far too explicit for someone as mild-mannered as myself to type, but justifiably so.
Also in attendance of today’s rally, but with little grounds to claim any solidarity with the protestors supporting democratic ideals was Russia’s infamous Sergei Lavrov, one of the Kremlin’s most vocal proponents for press censorship. The Foreign Minister has presided over a period in which Russia Today, and other national news outlets have become parrots of the government. Putin is unashamed to admit this, as he describe said process in a recent interview “channel funded by the government, so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position on the events in our country and in the rest of the world one way or another.”
Despite Lavrov’s baseless insistence that it remains “editorially independent,” Russia Today has become something that challenges little of the government’s agenda and whilst claiming to speak for many voices, speaks with the disguised voice of the Kremlin.
Furthermore, President Putin pushed through the Russian Duma, a legislative statute that continues restricting the percentage of stake foreigners can hold in any given Russian organisations at 20%, and this has severely limited the amount of differing voices raised in Russia. In other words, it has created a bubble of Russo-centric media with little foreign influences infiltrating and adding to the sphere of debate in Russian broadcasting, print, and other coverage. Russia’s continued support of Press Freedom is laughable at best, and laugh it Charlie Hedbo hopefully will.
But Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko who marched today, whilst not as malevolent or as heavy-handed as the clumsy authoritarian interventions of the Kremlin in the press, should also consider reflecting on the values espoused by the Marche Republican protest in Paris. Perturbingly, the perpetrators of 67% of journalists murdered in Ukraine have received impunity, and moreover, the Ukrainian Parliament are continuing to push through extensive legislation giving the National Security and Defence Council the powers to block websites and prevent publication of materials of any opinion, in national or international media, that jeopardises “security and national interests” without any ability of the publisher to refer to a court. Charlie Hedbo would have serious questions to ask of one of the European Union’s new aspiring member states.
One of the marches more controversial members, Mahmoud Abbas was one of the most high-profile attendees of today’s rally from Place de la Republique. Abbas has repeatedly denied entry to journalists wishing to cover foreign trips of visiting dignitaries and other world leaders, tending to allow only those sympathetic to his agenda entrance to the Westbank or to his official events. Freedom of Expression in the West Bank is a concept that is yet to be fully realised, with 66% of the population expressing fears of criticising sitting President Mahmoud Abbas. It is not hard to understand why Palestinians should be afraid of Abbas, a man who jailed a political satirist for a year for comparing his face to that of a Syrian Television villain, and for his dissenting view, the journalist was branded a “traitor”, and hence we see that Palestine is a place that the principles Mahmoud Abbas apparently supports are flagrantly disregarded, and Charlie Hedbo couldn’t even manufacture a more malignantly ironic situation than his appearance at the march
Turning our eyes now to fellow marcher, and oppressor of media freedom, Sheikh Mohamed Ben Hamad Ben Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar, who nows seeks to implement a law detailing offences of spreading false news. What qualifies as false news? False news is defined by the governments new bill as “news or opinions that don’t align to the list of acceptable opinion held in favour by the Qatari government.” All published media must “conform to respecting Qatar’s social and political values.” Such a law will only hinder the discussion and development of a free press, and lead to a narrow view of policy in the region.
Qatar is also legislating to continue to be able to jail journalists, but not for crimes against journalism, but via non-compliance with fines which couldn’t be afforded by the majority of journalists, hence allowing them to continue to jail journalists whilst reducing their statistics for doing so. Qatar stand on a shaky position when it comes to supporting Press Freedom, and should seriously consider their position when claiming to support organisations like Charlie Hedbo’s stance on satire and free speech.
Standing in supposed solidarity yesterday with other world leaders was President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali, who also claims to support the fight against Radical Islamism in Mali, an intervention which was partaken in by France earlier last year. Mali’s situation regarding Press Freedom has seen serious decline and erosion of progress made throughout the new millennium. I acknowledge that it is often noted in warring nations or nations involved in civil conflict or fighting an insurgency, however Mali has plummeted in most Press Freedom index by even more dramatic levels than usually excusable.
The World Press Freedom Index has seen Mali plummet by 76 places in one year, as progress towards making Mali a Democratic nation complimented by a vibrant freedom of expression has taken notable steps backwards. Not only has Mali shown that it is regressing in terms of Press Freedom Indexes, but journalists are being expelled for delving into the human rights abuses committed by Mali’s military, which would “ruin the image of the military.” Mali has also shown continuously that it is willing to censor online news sources who would dare defy the government by raising legitimate concerns about the government, or moreover, reporting the extrajudicial killings and crimes committed by government forces. Mali’s government was the subject of much political scorn and mocking from Charlie Hedbo, it is surprising that a President whose contempt for journalism is well documented decided to show his support for freedom of speech.
Jordan’s record on Press Freedom was also deemed to be regarded as a relative jewel in the Arab world, while still flawed, it once enjoyed a flourishing community of bloggers and socio-political commentators who enjoyed relative freedom of speech. However, post-Arab Spring, King Abdullah of Jordan’s record is also one which needs much questioning: Jordan’s government has closed multiple sites, an estimated 270 news sites at bare minimum, which had reported news which they felt “were overtly critical of the government in unbalanced ways.” Jordan have also used the Jordanian Security Service to intimidate journalists on multiple occasions. In 2013, 29 journalists were submitted to treatment that can be defined as torture including sleep deprivation and violent beatings.
Another nation similarly developing into an increasingly more authoritarian state is that of Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu’s Turkey. Turkey is the holder of the shameful accolade of having the most incarcerated journalists globally, trumping long-term enemies of free speech, China and Iran. Even now, Davutoglu strenuously denies that Turkey should be held accountable for the escape of the suspect in the Paris massacre into Syria, as he says that Turkey cannot be accountable for events in Paris, a type of non-sequitur logic that deserves to be exposed. He is willing to march with the Marche Republicaine against those who would attack our freedom of speech, but he absolves his nation of responsibly in trying to apprehend them.
Of course, crediting Davutoglu as the only threat to Turkish free speech would be errant, when President Erdogan is justas fervently attacking this inalienable right. Erdogan has overseen Turkey ban Twitter, which “incited political dissent” and YouTube, which “promoted the act of religious defamation (article 216).”
Let’s remember, Davutoglu’s government marched in Paris on a rally that supported an organisation that used satire to question the influence of religion on society, yet had Charlie Hedbo been Turkish, it would most likely have relocated nation or no longer exist due to its material being illegal. Indeed, despite even judicial systems telling Turkish President Erdogan that he could not eliminate Twitter, he continued to push forward his agenda of censorship and political agenda regardless, pledging to “eradicate Twitter” which encouraged “blasphemy and criticism of the Turkish government.”
Sisi’s Egypt is rampantly attacking Freedom of Speech, and his government’s conduct is not condonable on many fronts. Hence, when Sameh Shoukry, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt attended the Paris rally, his regime’s hypocrisy was truly exposed. Despite being a large critic of political and radical Islam, Sisi continues to “pass authoritarian and restrictive legislation at a rate never seen in any government for 60 years.” Egypt has also decided to increase its ability to detain political dissidents without any legislative foundation. Sisi’s government has legislated to remove the application of a pre-trial detention limit for any crimes punishable by death or indeed a life sentence, this allows Sisi’s government to therefore indefinitely detain those who are charged without treason, and never allow their case to reach a trial or allow them legal representation, effectively silencing dissident movements.
Late last year, Sisi’s government also effectively banned any form of political protest not sponsored by Sisi’s government and authorised by local police forces, and by extension this law enforces a ban on any material that would manifestly “fuel dissidence“, this combined with the aforementioned removal of a pre-trial detention limit allows for journalists to be detain on a political whim, and is an incredibly dangerous legislative agenda. Charlie Hedbo has a large student readership, but in Egypt, Sisi has given himself the sole rights to dismiss and hire University staff, hence by de facto Sisi is in a far more controlling position of the conversation and academic community, and one of Egypt’s largest hubs for protest and political conversation allows him to remain relatively unchallenged in power of Egypt.
Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to France, Dr. Mohammed Ismail Al-Sheikh should perhaps have considered why Saudi Arabia felt it appropriate to send a representative to join the march in Paris, with the messages being about free speech. Saudi Arabia earlier this year criminalised atheism, which was declared as a form of terrorism. King Abdullah also used legislation to clamp down on any dissidence or vocal disagreement with the government that could potentially “harm public order“. Saudi Arabia also declared Charlie Hedbo a “deplorable attack of terrorism,” whilst continuing to publicly flogged Raif Badawi, a prolific pro-democracy blogger for “insulting Islam” on Friday, citing its public nature as a deterrent from those”insulting the prophet.”
“Je Suis Charlie” was a chant that rang out in the streets of Paris this Sunday, but it seems that partaking in the trend for many leaders was for the glamour of seeming to be united against terror and supporting free speech, rather than actually having a substantial agreement with the cause of protestors. Many of these leaders feel they will be remembered by the rallies they attend, not the domestic policy they follow. However, there is a positive to take from these world leaders attendance, now that they have apparently been at a rally to support freedom of speech and unite against terror, it is the duty of governments and media to challenge them to take positive political reforms on the issue of Press Freedom and ensure that while Paris must never happen again, that must not be because journalism falls into the crosshairs of governments as well as terrorists.