Je suis Charlie vigil. Michael Debets/Demotix. All rights reserved.It was inspiring to see so many world leaders take to the streets of Paris to support freedom of expression and solidarity with all the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, including the murdered police officers and hostages, as well as the magazine’s staff. But will they take the spirit of Charlie home, where criticism and dissent are a little harder to stomach?
Here’s how dignitaries at the Paris rally could uphold their new-found commitments to free speech: Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shukry, should urge the release of three al-Jazeera journalists jailed for more than a year without evidence of any crime. He should persuade his government to stop arresting critical journalists or people dissenting via peaceful protests. The Turkish government, represented in Paris by Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, has misused terrorism and coup-plot allegations to detain, prosecute and imprison journalists and regularly charges them for criticism of the ruling party or ‘insulting’ public officials, prompting a chilling effect on media freedom. Davutoglu should urge an end to these prosecutions and implementation of the free speech principles the government claims to uphold. Independent journalism is a risky business in Russia, with 29 journalists murdered in connection with their work since Vladimir Putin first became president in 2000, and social media critics harassed and detained. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov should urge Putin to ensure that all the past attacks against journalists are effectively investigated, including the 2014 murder of Timur Kuashev.
Abdullah II marched in Paris, but in 2012 Jordan passed amendments to its press law allowing the government to encroach on online media freedom. The king should push for repeal of restrictive press law provisions and halt all prosecutions of media professionals and ordinary citizens for dubious criminal offenses related to free expression. A counter-terrorism law issued in August by the United Arab Emirates gives authorities the power to prosecute for capital offenses peaceful critics, political dissidents and human rights activists as well as anyone in possession of material deemed to oppose fundamental principles of Islam. Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, inspired by his march in Paris, should suggest the law be repealed or its use restricted to genuine national security crimes.
As it happens, only the US ambassador to France attended the rally, though Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris – the White House later acknowledged this was a mistake. But US national security policies are jeopardizing press freedom. A Human Rights Watch report found that mass surveillance programs hamper journalists’ ability to do their jobs and undermine basic freedoms of expression and the public’s right to know. Within the European Union, Hungary stands out for passing laws to restrict media freedom and diminish journalistic independence. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who marched in Paris, should reform the Media Authority and Council to ensure its independence from the government and end vague requirements that media outlets produce “balanced content” or risk large fines. Many EU countries have overbroad laws against “glorification of terrorism,” and France itself announced today it had opened investigations of 54 people for glorifying terrorism on social media, including the controversial comedian, Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, who has been arrested for an allegedly anti-Semitic Facebook post.
To demonstrate genuine support for Charlie Hebdo, the VIP marchers should uphold media freedom at home, which means freeing journalists from arbitrary detention, reforming laws misused to persecute the press, and narrowing surveillance policies to address genuine security threats while upholding privacy.
Surely #JeSuisCharlie was more than just a convenient slogan for the day?