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What freedom of speech? Of foxes, chickens, and #JeSuisCharlie

Most Europeans, at both elite and mass level, have a grossly inflated idea of the extent of freedom of speech in Europe, a direct consequence of the uncritical and self-congratulatory discourse on the topic.

French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala on trial, January 28, 2015. French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala on trial, January 28, 2015. Aurelien Morissard/Demotix. All rigths reserved.

“We reaffirm our unfailing attachment to the freedom of expression, to human rights, to pluralism, to democracy, to tolerance and to the rule of law: They are the foundation of our democracies and are at the heart of the European Union. By attacking Charlie Hebdo, police officers and Jewish community, the terrorists set out to tear down these universal values. They will not succeed.”

Joint Statement of Ministers of Interior, 11 January 2015

There is a Dutch saying, which literally translates as “When the fox preaches passion, farmer look after your chickens.” Call me paranoid, or perhaps cautious, but this is a motto I tend to abide by when following politics. In fact, experience teaches us that the more passionate the fox(es), the better one should look after the chickens. Unfortunately, few of us do. We get mesmerized by the passion of the fox and don’t see how our chickens disappear, one by one. Enter #JeSuisCharlie!

On the day of the horrific terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, I published a piece entitled “No, we are NOT all Charlie (and that’s a problem)”, which went viral. No one knows why, least of all me, but it clearly hit a nerve. I argued that we (and I include myself) are not Charlie, because of at least one of the following three reasons: (1) we are selective defenders of free speech; (2) we believe that speech should be ‘civil’; and, the one that applies to me, (3) we are afraid to stand up to people who threaten violence in response to contested speech.

While #JeSuisCharlie might not have been the most popular hashtag in history, it was already used more than 5 million times within the first two days after the attack. Absolutely everyone was Charlie, from embattled Muslims and their far right enemies in France to authoritarian dictators in Africa and hip coffee shop owners in Santiago de Chile. Millions of people demonstrated in defense of democracy and free speech around the world. In Paris some 1.6 million marched through the streets on January, 11, one of the largest rallies in postwar France. As many critics noted, the rally included noted defenders of democracy and free speech, such as Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

As so often happens in the aftermath of a traumatic “attack on democracy,” a short burst of emotional support for democracy is followed by a calculated, less visible, attack on its core values. Just as 9/11 was the start of the most significant assault on liberal democracy in recent US history, the terrorist attacks in Paris have given rise to a broad onslaught on the core values of liberal democracy in Europe, not least that of freedom of speech.

It started out with a still fairly benign condemnation of the few people who did not get swallowed up by the #JeSuisCharlie hype and a more vocal rejection of those who dared to present a different narrative. Perhaps the first high-profile case of JeSuisCharlie-hypocrisy was the arrest of controversial French comedian and anti-Zionist Dieudonné M’Bala M’bala, who, after allegedly having marched in the big Paris demonstration, posted on his Facebook page, “As far as I am concerned, I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly” (referring to the terrorist attacker of the Paris kosher deli). While he was quickly released, few came to his defense. We were Charlie, not Dieudonné!

Within days the civility argument resurfaced with a vengeance. While those who dared to claim that the cartoonists had called the violence upon themselves were (rightly) condemned, the argument that their cartoons were “racist” and not satirical (as if the two are mutually exclusive) steadily gained ground.  On the Left and the Right people returned to their previous positions, arguing even more vigilantly against the specific speech they didn’t like (while often either claiming to be Charlie or defending the speech they did like with references to freedom of speech). One of the most bizarre debates was in Belgium, where almost the whole cultural and political elite tumbled over each other to reject the “unacceptable” banner of Standard Liège ultras – which features horror image Jason Voorhees holding the (beheaded) head of former Standard captain Steven Defour, now playing for opponent, and archrival, Anderlecht. In all these cases politicians argued that, while they fully supported #JeSuisCharlie and free speech, this particular speech “crossed borders” and was “unacceptable”. In most cases the silence of the earlier defenders of freedom of speech was deafening.

Of much greater consequence, however, is the myriad of new legislations that is being prepared and proposed around Europe. Barely back home from their demonstration for free speech in Paris, political leaders from across the European Union (EU) started discussing new limitations on free speech to “fight radicalism”.

Once again the proposed policies to protect liberal democracy meant the weakening of key aspects of liberal democracy. In one of the most significant statements, interior ministers of eleven EU member states (including Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK) used the attacks to call for (even) further collaboration between their law enforcement and intelligence agencies. In a perfect example of newspeak, they stated:

We are concerned at the increasingly frequent use of the Internet to fuel hatred and violence and signal our determination to ensure that the Internet is not abused to this end, while safeguarding that it remains, in scrupulous observance of fundamental freedoms, a forum for free expression, in full respect of the law.

The uncomfortable truth is, however, that Europe has always had an unscrupulous observance of fundamental freedoms. While openly preaching freedom of speech European governments have always limited this freedom for specific groups (e.g. communist and fascists) and with regard to specific topics (e.g. monarchy and religion) in practice.

These limitations became even more numerous in the 1980s, as a consequence of a true explosion of new “anti-discrimination” legislation. The new legislation, as well as the accompanying centers to ‘fight’ discrimination, barely distinguish between ‘discriminatory’ behaviors and opinions, outlawing a broad range of speech.

Since 9/11 the focus has changed again, as many European states have become much less concerned about Islamophobic speech – which is now the most protected “hate speech” in Europe – and much more about Jihadist speech. Almost after each “Jihadist” attack, governments across the continent develop new infringements on rights to privacy and free speech. For example, since the Paris attacks the French government has aggressively reigned in vocal support for terrorism. In other words, the new limitations come on top of a long-established line of limitations. The New York Times reported that up to 100 people are currently under investigation “for making or posting comments that support or try to justify terrorism”.

Sadly enough, this selective defense of free speech seems to be more in line with “Charlie” than I initially realized. While most mainstream media continue to portray Charlie Hebdo as a pure and principled satirical magazine that targeted everyone and everything, it turns out that Charlie made exceptions too. In 1996 three prominent cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, including the late Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), collected almost 175,000 signatures in a petition to ban the far right party Front National (FN), because it allegedly contradicted the key values of the French Republic. Even more damaging, the magazine fired cartoonist Maurice Sinet, known as Siné, for an allegedly anti-Semitic cartoon in 2008 – Sinet successfully sued Charlie Hebdo for 40.000 euros for wrongful termination in 2009.

In short, freedom of speech has always been limited and selective in Europe. Unfortunately, this is completely in line with the preferences of the vast majority of Europeans, even though they quarrel over which specific speech should be free and which should be banned.

The main problem is that most Europeans, both at the elite and mass level, have a grossly inflated idea of the extent of freedom of speech in Europe, a direct consequence of the uncritical and self-congratulatory discourse on the topic. Hence, they argue that speech was never meant to be totally free (e.g. Pope Francis) and that “some” limitations are perfectly democratic. The problem is that we already have many limitations of free speech in Europe. The constant adding of more “exceptions” has created a situation in which it has become simply inaccurate and disingenuous to claim that Europe has (true) freedom of speech.

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