In the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech seems to be having a moment. As the rallies in Paris and elsewhere last weekend demonstrated, freedom of speech has strong support in the West. It is the one value that can unite Americans and Brits, Russians and Ukrainians, Israelis and Palestinians.
Except looks can be deceiving. Many of the governments that sent representatives to the rally in Paris, while displaying superficial support for free speech in France, actually have little respect for free speech at home. For example, countries such as Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Brazil all have laws criminalizing “offensive speech.”
Even more bizarrely, the governments of Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all sent representatives to the rally in Paris despite having prosecuted individuals in their respective countries for the crime of “insulting religion.” Turkey’s government is now apparently banning any webpage that depicts the latest Charlie Hebdo cover. (Nobody shows solidarity better than the Turks, huh?)
Moreover, 14 countries whose governments sent representatives to the rally in Paris (Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, UAE, China, Algeria, Benin, Mali, Niger, Tunisia, Togo, Senegal, and Egypt) were among the countries voting in favor of a U.N. resolution opposing “defamation of religion.”
In addition, as Reporters Without Borders has pointed out, several of the governments represented at the rally have very poor records on freedom of the press, including Turkey, Russia, Algeria, Gabon, and the United Arab Emirates. Turkey, in particular, seems to have a fondness for imprisoning journalists.
Decrying the presence of authoritarian regimes at a rally for free speech, Reporters Without Borders issued the following statement:
“It would be unacceptable if representatives of countries that silence journalists were to take advantage of the current outpouring of emotion to try to improve their international image and then continue their repressive policies when they return home. We must not let predators of press freedom spit on the graves of Charlie Hebdo.”
One of the more astonishing cases of hypocrisy is that of British Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron, who attended the rally in Paris, said in a press conference following the attack that “[W]e should never give up the values that we believe in and defend as part of our democracy and civilisation [sic] and believing in a free press, in freedom of expression, in the right of people to write and say what they believe.”
Cameron has also defended Charlie Hebdo’s latest cover, saying that “It’s not for politicians to tell magazines or television stations or radio stations what they should publish or what they shouldn’t publish.”
This all comes from the same man who has been leading the charge against pornography in the U.K., cracking down on everything from simulated rape porn to female ejaculation. For David Cameron to praise freedom of expression is laughable, given how hard the Prime Minister has worked to prevent adults from seeing pictures of other adults having sex. (No doubt Cameron would take a different stance on Charlie Hebdo if its covers depicted uncensored female genitalia instead of the Prophet Muhammad.)
Even the French themselves have little moral authority when it comes to freedom of speech. Although it ostensibly supports Charlie Hebdo‘s right to offend, the French government has a long history of prosecuting individuals for “inciting racial hatred” and similar offenses.
Just this week, French authorities arrested 54 individuals for offenses including “hate speech” and “glorifying terrorism.” Among those arrested was controversial anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne, who was charged for a Facebook posting in which he seemed to express support for Amedy Coulibaly, the Islamist gunman who killed four hostages at a kosher supermarket in Paris last Friday. (So much for France’s brief commitment to free speech!)
Freedom of speech needs real champions, not governments that will pay lip service to it while locking up journalists, censoring pornography, and prosecuting people for mere words. Certainly, the rallies in Paris and elsewhere would have been much smaller gatherings if only those who absolutely, genuinely support free speech had attended, but at least attendance would have meant something.