Category Archives: freedom of expression

We are not all Charlie: why the biggest threat to freedom of expression might come from within democracies

Putting aside the usual “they had it coming” comments that have flourished on twitter and facebook, since Tuesday, I am reading reports that a number of media outlets are deciding not to show Charlie Hebdo cartoons. This seems to be the case for CNN for example, which circulated an internal memo to that effect, and Associated Press which apparently removed Charlie Hebdo cartoons from its database.

I called this reaction “sad and cowardly” on twitter yesterday, but I suppose that faced with such barbaric act of violence, I should show some understanding for the decision of these journalists who might fear for their lives. Not everybody has the courage of Charb, the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo, who claimed to prefer to die standing than on his knees.

The problem is that fear, which is at the end of the day a natural human reaction, is not the the justification that is always put forward. This is from the CNN memo:

Although we are not at this time showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet considered offensive by many Muslims, platforms are encouraged to verbally describe the cartoons in detail. This is key to understanding the nature of the attack on the magazine and the tension between free expression and respect for religion.

In my initial reaction to the attack in Paris against Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, I claimed rather harshly that the idea one finds in human rights discourse that offense or disrespect of religion are legitimate limitations of free speech was conceptually also responsible for what happened in Paris. The CNN memo illustrates this point by putting in the same balance free speech and respect for religion.

However, there is no right to be respected in my view, either for individuals, and even less for religions. As noted by Salman Rushdie in his message of support to Charlie Hebdo, “‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.” Freedom of expression  and respect for religion, or any idea, should not therefore never be put on the same level.

Of course, some people have told me that my focus on freedom of expression is too intellectual and beside the point in response the the senseless violence that the murderers used. It is a language that they cannot start to understand.

I agree. There are some people with whom dialogue is impossible and there is no sense in invoking against them certain values, because values, contrary to the universalist ideology, imply a shared social contract, a sense of wanting to live together within the same community (vivre ensemble, in French).

This was brilliantly captured by Charb in a 2012 editorial in Charlie Hebdo:

Peins un Mahomet glorieux, tu meurs.
Dessine un Mahomet rigolo, tu meurs.
Gribouille un Mahomet ignoble, tu meurs.
Réalise un film de merde sur Mahomet, tu meurs.
Tu résistes à la terreur religieuse, tu meurs.
Tu lèches le cul aux intégristes, tu meurs.
Prends un obscurantiste pour un abruti, tu meurs.
Essaie de débattre avec un obscurantiste, tu meurs.
Il n’y a rien à négocier avec les fascistes.

[translation: Paint a glorious Muhammad , you die. Draw a funny Muhammad, you die. Scribble an ignoble Muhammad , you die. Make a crappy movie about Muhammad , you die. Resist religious zealots , you die. Lick the ass the fundamentalists , you die. Take an obscurantist for a fool , you die. Try to debate with an obscurantist , you die. There is nothing to negotiate with fascists.]

My point is very different. I am not trying to convince extremists to agree with me. They probably never will, as our views of the world and of a shared community are radically opposed.

My point is addressed at those within our democracies who try to limit free expression every day under the guise of human rights, respect or human dignity. I believe that freedom of expression is non negotiable full stop, whether with fascists or anyone else. Yet, I wonder how many of the people who are supporting Charlie Hebdo today are truly supporting freedom of expression.

Indeed, the same people who are marching in the street today, often also think that voices should be silenced through laws which vaguely define “incitement to racial hatred” or want Parliaments to legislate on history through laws prohibiting denial of certain events or crimes. Of course, they would claim that these examples are very different. What transpires from interviews done with people attending the marches in Paris is that, Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are defended because they are perceived as progressive left-wingers. Whereas the likes of Dieudonné, a controversial French humorist, perceived as an antisemite, should not be allowed to do his shows. It is also the same people who would refuse that the Front National, a legally recognized French party, not participate in the general march in support of Charlie Hebdo because it is not ‘republican’ enough. It is the same people who denounce the racist caricatures of far-right newspaper Minute.

Do they not see the paradox there? Marching in the street seemingly denouncing any attack on freedom of expression while at the same time denying that the others should be allowed to express themselves… Freedom of expression is a question of principle which should not depend on the content of the expression, in the same way that the protection of the rights of the accused in international tribunals should not depend on the perception of guilt, or the our moral reaction to the horrendous nature of the crimes. I defend Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in the same way I would defend Dieudonné or Garaudy, a French holocaust denier (or his English equivalent, David Irving): because whatever they say, they should have a right to say it in a democratic society. I wonder how many people, if these shootings had taken place at Minute, would now be wearing a T-shirt with “I am Minute” on it.

In that respect I am profoundly intellectually opposed to the phrasing of of Article 10(2) of the ECHR which provides that:

The exercise of [freedom of expression], since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society

For me, a truly democratic society should not need to limit freedom of expression. It should be solid enough in its foundations to accept even the most radical opinions, however outrageous or disrespectful they are.

The problem is that too many people  have accepted this intellectual dictatorship that seeks to impose what we should think about everything and the ensuing limitations to our freedom of expression.

I see this every year in my human rights classes, where I always take freedom of expression as a case study. I do this because I realized that this seems to be the fundamental freedom, in appearance applauded throughout the world as shown by the overwhelming support for Charlie Hebdo, where students are willing to accept limitations on the basis of various moral, religious or other grounds without any further reflection. This is not the case for other freedoms, such as the prohibition of torture for example, because they create easily digestible dichotomies between perpetrator and victim, where there is no real debate whose side to be on. You are on the side of the victim, therefore you agree with the prohibition of torture. Easy. Freedom of expression is something else, because the victims are seen not as those protected by the right, but those affected by the exercise of the right by someone else. So by naturally siding with the victim, we have to disagree with the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. And it is all downhill from there.

Some would claim that the conduct of the media outlets mentioned previously shows, as the phrase goes, that “the terrorists win”. Sadly, I think the situation is far worse than that. Because of our easy acceptance of limitations to freedom of expression in our societies, we have already, despite our most sincere claims to the contrary, started to erode, slowly but surely, this most fundamental freedom that is free speech. What’s worse therefore than the terrorists winning? The fact that we don’t seem to have needed the terrorists in the first place…

I conclude with this beautiful quote from French humorist Pierre Desproges, who practiced his art at a time when you could be caustic without being sued and who would cry if he woke up in France today:

S’il est vrai que l’humour est la politesse du désespoir, s’il est vrai que le rire, sacrilège blasphématoire que les bigots de toutes les chapelles taxent de vulgarité et de mauvais goût, s’il est vrai que ce rire-là peut parfois désacraliser la bêtise, exorciser les chagrins véritables et fustiger les angoisses mortelles, alors oui, on peut rire de tout, on doit rire de tout.

[translation (francophone readers will have to forgive me for this crude translation of Desproges. His mastery of the French language make it quite hard to translate): If it is true that humour is the politeness of despair, if it is true that laughter, blasphemous sacrilege that bigots of all the creeds denounce as vulgarity and bad taste, if it is true that that laughter can sometimes desacralize stupidity, exorcise the real sorrows and castigate mortal anguishes, then yes, one can laugh about everything, one must laugh about everything.]

“I am Charlie”: defending freedom of expression after French Cartoonists killed

je suis charlie

“I am strong, I will hurt them with my words” (My 3 year old son, when being told what happened in France today)

This post is not about cold legal analysis, or even about law. It will not be particularly structured or elaborate. It is an expression of shock and anger at what happened in Paris today.

Two armed men entered the most famous French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo and shot a dozen people before escaping. Apparently, the two men claim to do this in the name of Islam. The attack led to the death of four of the most famous French cartoonists (Wolinski, Tignous, Cabu and Charb, the editor in chief of the newspaper). These individuals represented freedom of expression in France and were known for fighting those who opposed this principle, whatever their creed and religion. These cartoonists helped me grow up intellectually throughout my youth and shaped my capacity for critical thought. They taught me that intellectual freedom and freedom of expression are the most important values and that words are the sharpest weapons.

France, the birthplace of Voltaire, is in shock today.

Charlie Hebdo had taken a stand in 2006 when it decided to reproduce the famous caricatures of Mohamed that had initially been published in a Danish newspaper and sparked tensions throughout the world.

It is the protection of freedom of expression which led me to start this blog nearly five years ago. My second post was to denounce a resolution from the UN Human Rights Council on the “defamation of religion”. The UN should not be held hostage or be complicit to such theories.

My one and only belief is in freedom of expression. Continue reading

New Controversial Laws in Israel: Some Thoughts

The Knesset, Israel’s Parliament has recently approved a series of apparently controversial laws which has provoked some strong opposition. The first one allows small communities in the Negev and Gallilee to refuse a resident permit to people who are “ill-suited to the community’s way of life” or “might harm the community’s fabric”. The second law, which is being called the “Nakba law”, would allow the State to fine state-funded institutions who commemorate the “Nakba” (literally “catastrophe”), the Palestinian day that coincides with Israel’s independence day and  commemorates the loss of their land. The third law would allow courts to revoke someone’s citizenship for certain acts, such as terrorism, treason or collaboration with the enemy in time of war, or “any other act which harms national sovereignty”.

There is no denying that the general political context of the adoption of these laws is less that optimal. The right wing coalition of Netanyahu and Lieberman is playing into the population’s xenophobic and security fears and has been bad news for peace in the middle east since it was elected to power last year. In this context, it is a delicate intellectual exercise to coldly consider the actual content of these laws and try to analyse them in a decontextualised way, but I still want to share some thoughts on two of them, the nationality law and the Nakba law.

In relation to the nationality law, it was strongly denounced and declared to be “racist”, because aimed at the country’s Arab minority. However, in the absence of actual practice of the law, and I insist, independently of the intent of the majority which passed the law, I find this conclusion a bit hasty. For one, if this law is controversial, then it should be controversial in many countries, not just Israel. Indeed, many States have such provisions in their national legislation for such crimes. One could question whether such type of law should exist at all, on the basis that all nationals should be treated the same way, independently of their “origins” (which I would argue), but it is not a specific Israeli debate. Second of all, on the scope of the law, it only “discriminates” against persons having committed a specific crime. But that is how criminal law works. Saying otherwise would be absurd. It would be like saying that the law providing for 30 years in prison for a murderer is discriminatory against murderers… More specifically, saying that the law is “racist”, implies that the law considers that all Arabs are terrorists and traitors. That might be what Lieberman thinks, but that is not what the law says. Therefore, if you accept the principle of that law (which I wouldn’t), its current formulation would seem unproblematic to me.
I would however have one reservation that would need to be verified, because none of the news reports I’ve read give any indication: that of the situation of persons with a single nationality. Indeed, the French law, for example, provides that you cannot revoke the nationality of someone if it would result in them being stateless. This is in application of the international law rules in that respect, more particularly the Convention on the reduction of Statelessness of 1961. Israel has not ratified the Convention, but there could be some argument that its provisions form part of customary law. In this sense, it would be particularly problematic if the law did not provide for an exception in such cases.

In relation of the Nakba law, I must admit that I am of two minds. But first, three points on the law itself.
For one, it is unclear from what I’ve read what the law says exactly. According to wikipedia (I’m sorry for the source, but because I don’t read hebrew, I’m limited to secondary sources which would need to be verified), the law doesn’t actually mentions the Nakba. It allows for the witholding of:

government funding from Arab towns and state-funded organizations or public institutes that participate in “activity that involves the negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people; the negation of the state’s democratic character, support for armed struggle or terror acts by an enemy or a terror organization against the State of Israel; incitement to racism, violence and terror and dishonoring the national flag or the national symbol”

Even if it does, and second of all, it is unclear what the “Nakba” specifically commemorates. According to Human Rights Watch, it refers:

 to the historic episode in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents of what is now Israel fled and hundreds of villages were destroyed during the conflict after Israel declared independence in 1948

However, according to other sources, its full name is “Yawm an-Nakba”, the  “day of the catastrophe”, and is commemorated on the same day as Israel’s independence day, in reaction to the specific creation of the State of Israel.

Third of all, the law does not prohibit all commemorations of the Nakba, it prohibits such commemorations by publicly-funded institutions. While the definition is wide-ranging, it is still limited.

With this in mind, a few thoughts. On principle, my natural instinct is in favor of absolute freedom of expression. I argued along those lines in one of my very first posts. I strongly oppose the trend towards the criminalization of free expression, even if it’s offensive, and I am, for example, strongly opposed to laws criminalizing holocaust denial.

But this is where, to come back to the very first point I made, I reach the limits of “decontextualising” the analysis of the law. In a “pacified” society, I can argue that freedom of expression should always prevail, and that everybody should be allowed to express their opinion, even if that opinion mourns the actual creation of the State where he lives. Discussion of the past should be free and unimpeded.
However, Israel is not a pacified society, on either side. Israel still feels threatened in its existence, whether this is in fact a real danger being irrelevant. Palestinians rightly feel that they have been robbed of their nationhood and have suffered 60 years of Israeli occupation, and half-hearted support from neighboring Arab States. The Nakba is not the past, it is the present and its celebration has very actual meaning in the current political context . As the debates on transitional justice, truth, reconciliation and peace have shown in the past decades, there is no simple answer, as some organisations would let have believe, as to how to deal with situations where the social fabric is so torn. Given the fragile balance (or imbalance), I would not have the arrogance to try and impose a theoretically perfect solution (freedom of expression) on Israel. The only option is compromise and some measure of balance.
In this context, I don’t find it that scandalous that a State would frown upon public institutions (I would adopt a more limited definition to cover only State institutions) promoting the commemoration of a day that basically mourns the formal creation of that State. I would not imagine a play in a publicly-funded French school celebrating Petain, and mourning his defeat in 1945 (just to be clear, I take this as an example of an ontological fracture in the nature of the French State, not as a comparison between Petain and the Palestinians). On the other hand, with a broader definition of what the Nakba represents, Israel should try to face its past and acknowledge that its creation, while not being put in doubt, came with serious human rights abuses that still leave open wounds today. This would however require clarity that the celebration of the Nakba does not imply that Israel should not exist as a State today, which is politically and understandably difficult to accept for Israel.

If anybody has any corrections to make on the actual content of the laws, I’d be happy to make the appropriate changes. I look forward to your comments on this complex topic. Those who would be tempted to simplistically put me in the “pro-palestinian” or “pro-israeli” box, based on one or other sentence in my post (biased people generally tend to have a surprisingly accurate capacity for selective reading) are also invited to share their thoughts for comic relief.

Defamation of religions in a Brave new World…

As the Durban II Review conference on Racism comes to an end, I would like to come back to one aspect of my previous entry: the defamation of religions as an act of racism. It appears from the draft outcome document that it has not been adopted in Geneva.

The Human Rights Council, however, adopted a resolution at the end of March on the theme of “Combating Defamation of Religion”. In that document, Defamation of religion is presented as a component of incitement to religious hatred. It therefore “Underscores the need to combat defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general”. It justified the limitations of freedom of expression that would ensue, by saying that it is protecting Human Dignity and freedom of religion, thus putting us in front of a classic Human Rights balancing test: “Stressing that defamation of religions is a serious affront to human dignity leading to a restriction on the freedom of religion of their adherents and incitement to religious hatred and violence”.

This is not a new issue, and painfully became of global concern when the caricatures of Mohammed were published in a Danish newspaper and in several other countries. The debate back then also focused on the freedom of expression Vs Freedom of religion/Human Dignity.

But the whole logic of this HRC resolution and of this debate in general is flawed at various levels.
First of all, it is wrong to balance Freedom of Expression and Freedom of of Religion here. Nobody is preventing anybody from practicing their religion. Expressing the view that such and such religious practice is to my dislike (whether the stoning of adulteress women, the fact that homosexuals should burn in hell, that women are treated as mere breeders, that I cannot smoke on saturdays, drink when I want, or have sex before marriage (!!!)) is of no relevance to whether the people who do believe in those practices can do so freely or not.
Second of all, since when do “religion” have rights? what does “defamation of religion” mean exactly? Who is this “Religion” who is going to go to court and sue me for having defamed his name? Maybe this a one more example of this trend of “collective” human rights that seems to be gaining ground in the past few years, like the “right to developement”…
Third of all, and more generally, we must not give in to the general trend of politically correct limitations to our freedom of expression. Under the umbrella of “Human Dignity”, pressure groups are trying to prevent any kind of comment that might be vaguely offensive. Comedians cannot open their mouth without someone making a formal complaint. Let me make things clear here. That people are unhappy with something being said and express it is perfectly ok. What I have a problem with is that we call for a legal and more specifically criminal response to offensive remarks. Because that is what we are talking about most of the time. It has nothing to do with “human dignity”. It has to do with being offended and, following this logic, why should “only” the people who call you a “nigger”, a “raghead”, or a “spick” be prosecuted? I should also be sued because I tell you that you are fat, or ugly, or short… Moreover, it leaves no room for irony, sarcasm, or second degree humour. what a sad and brave new world that is…
On a more philosophical level, any thought, philosophy or ideology that cannot accept contradiction is structurally defective. Moreover, I am not defined by the opinion others have of me. Why should I care what an antisemite thinks of me? It says more about him than about me. If we put all stupid people in jail, it would make finding a free stretch of sand on the beach in the summer easier (although I only go to the beach if it’s free…).

Finally, on a more subtantive level, and without taking sides, this general debate should not cloud the fact that certain religious practices are contrary to internationally recognised human rights. Religious leaders can spin it as much as they want, they can’t have their cake and eat it: sometimes strict religious practice is just plain incompatible with respect of human rights. What should be done about this is another issue, but the elephant in the the living room can’t be ignored forever, under the pretence that there isn’t enough light to see it…

PS: Someone pointed out to me that the speech in Geneva by Ahmadinejad was not only on the birthday of Hitler, but also on remembrance day of the Shoah in Israel… you have to love the timing…