January 8, 2015 - Updated on January 20, 2016

“Blasphemy” concerns must not limit freedom of information

Yesterday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, in which 12 people died, has served as a tragic reminder of the dangers to which journalists covering sensitive religious issues are permanently exposed.

In a December 2013 report entitled “Blasphemy: Information sacrificed on altar of religion,” Reporters Without Borders examined the “crime” of blasphemy and its consequences for journalists worldwide. Sadly, this report is still very relevant.

The ability of journalists to freely cover religious issues in a various ways, including the use of humour, is again being challenged both in France and the rest of the world.

Journalists are increasingly facing religious taboos and censorship that influential groups are trying to impose. Columnists, editorial writers and cartoonists are among the journalists who are most exposed to threats, prosecution and even physical attacks.

The fire-bombing of Charlie Hebdo’s offices in 2011 in reprisal for a “Charia Hebdo” special issue and an attempt to murder Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in 2010 in response to the Jyllands-Posten newspaper’s publication of his Mohamed cartoons marked the public debate on the “right to blaspheme” that continues in Europe and elsewhere.

Citing many cases such as the death sentence that fundamentalists passed on the blogger Asif Mohiuddin in Bangladesh and the 2011 trial of Boris Obraztsov, the editor of the Kaliningrad-based newspaper Tridevyaty Region, for criticizing the Orthodox clergy, the Reporters Without Borders report analyses the dangers that result from blasphemy allegations being used to restrict free speech.

The report also looks at political use of the charge of “offence against religion” – an offence that is punished harshly in many parts of the world – and the campaign by certain countries and organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to impose an international ban “blasphemy” or “defamation of religion.”

And the report examines the legal and international challenges stemming from the fact that “blasphemy” is defined as crime in the legislation of many countries.

Reporters Without Borders is of the firmly-held view that blasphemy allegations should never be used to restrict free speech or media freedom,which are enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Read the report here