Writing or talking about religious matters continues to be delicate, to the point that you can risk losing your life. Three years after 12 people were killed at the Paris headquarters of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015, those who censor in the name of God still pose one of the gravest threats to the freedom to inform almost everywhere in the world.
From one continent to the next, calls for the deaths of journalists accused of blasphemy circulate widely on social networks. In France, anonymous Internet users call for more attacks on Charlie Hebdo. In Bangladesh, calls are being made for Shyamal Dutta, the editor of the daily newspaper Bhorer Kagaj, and his staff to be publicly hanged because a 23 December article said a book about the Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) that had been published by a government entity contained “vulgarities.”
In Bangladesh, as in Pakistan, fundamentalist groups and religious extremists tolerated by the authorities threaten journalists and bloggers with complete impunity, when they don’t abduct them or hack them to death*. It was exactly one year ago, on 7 January 2017, that the Pakistani blogger Samar Abbas disappeared. He was the founder of Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan, a group that posted articles online defending religious freedom. Four other bloggers were abducted around the same time.
After they went missing, a massive online smear campaign began accusing them of blasphemy, which carries the death penalty in Pakistan. Four of the five bloggers were released after several weeks but none of them dared to identify their abductors. The threat received by the family of one of the victims was explicit: “You who have blasphemed deserve death. You are out of Islam and should be ready for a painful punishment, which will be remembered by your generations to come.”
In Algeria, Abdou Semmar, the editor of the investigative online newspaper Algériepart and host of “L’Emission Impossible,” a programme on privately-owned Beur TV, has been reduced to hoping that he and his colleagues do not have to pay the highest price for the programme broadcast on 22 December, a debate about religious fanaticism that angered radical Islamists.
“Ever since then, we have been subjected to a major campaign of threats and harassment,” he said. A video accusing them of attacking Islam, that was broadcast on the Qatari TV channel Al Jazeera, served to fuel the outrage. “The fanatics are using it to attack us, and our families are beginning to be very afraid for our lives.”
“In many parts of the world, reporting the facts is regarded as heretical behaviour,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Fanatics do not just harass and threaten cartoonists, subjecting them to extreme violence. They also target journalists who cover religious matters and even just social issues and public affairs. The prohibitions that these extremists try to impose extend far beyond the religious domain".
“The charge of blasphemy cannot, under any circumstances, justify an exception to the freedom to inform. This is contrary to international law and we therefore call for the repeal of all legislation that restricts the freedom to inform in the name of religion.”
Charlie Hebdo continues to be at the front line of the unequal battle between fanatical censors and satirical journalists or cartoonists. Just two months ago, the magazine’s front page that showed Tariq Ramadan – a Swiss Islamic scholar accused of sexual assault – declaring himself to be the “6th pillar of Islam” triggered a virulent campaign of insults and death threats on social networks.
The continuing threats against Charlie Hebdo have a cost. A high one. In its latest issue, the magazine reported that the proceeds from more than one of every two copies that it sells have to be used to pay for protecting its headquarters and the journalists who work there. Freedom of expression “is in the process of becoming a luxury product,” publisher Riss said in an editorial.
“Three years after the tragedy, solidarity with Charlie Hebdo is still a moral obligation,” Deloire added. “The lives of its employees and the magazine’s economic survival must be defended because Charlie is a symbol that we cannot abandon without accepting defeat at the hands of religious intolerance.”
70 countries still have blasphemy laws
It is not just anonymous religious extremists who want blasphemy and apostasy to be punishable by execution or other drastic penalties. No fewer than 71 countries still had laws penalizing blasphemy at the start of 2017, according to a report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Since then, only one of these countries – Denmark in July – has repealed its blasphemy legislation. Some countries envisage reinforcing their laws in order to punish blasphemers more severely.
They include Mauritania. “Any Muslim, man or woman, who mocks or insults Allah or His Messenger (Mohammed), peace be upon him, His angels, His books or one of His Prophets, is punishable by death (...) even in the case of repentance,” says a law approved by the Mauritanian government on 16 November.
It was because he repented that the death sentence imposed on the blogger Mohamed Ould Mkheitir for a “blasphemous” post had been commuted to two years in prison just four days earlier. Now repentance is no longer possible. Mkheitir qualified for release on 9 November but his fate is still highly uncertain. The authorities are holding him in a secret location, officially for his own safety. But friends fear that he is being held to give the supreme court time to reconsider his case and parliament time to make the new law retroactive.
RSF laureates convicted of blasphemy
Blasphemy and apostasy are also punishable by death in Iran. Soheil Arabi, an Iranian photographer and citizen-journalist who was awarded the RSF Press Freedom Prize in 2017, has been held for the past four years for his alleged role in creating a Facebook network that “blasphemed” Islam and criticized the regime. After being sentenced to three years in prison and 30 lashes, he was retried a few months later and was sentenced to death. The death sentence was eventually overturned and in 2015 he was finally sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. What with being mistreated and recently going on hunger strike for 52 days, he is now in very poor physical and psychological health.
Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, a 2014 RSF Press Freedom laureate, has spent the past five years in prison for “insulting Islam.” Arrested for criticizing and mocking the religious police on his online discussion forum, called the “Liberal Saudi Network,” he was sentenced to ten years in prison, 1,000 lashes, a fine of 1 million riyals and a ban on leaving the country for ten years after his release. As in other cases, the sentence is out of all proportion to the alleged offence.
Blasphemy charge used to censor critics
Far from protecting what is sacred, these laws are mostly used in practice to stifle dissent, harass journalists and prevent any form of criticism of the system of government and those in power. Vague concepts serve as tools for persecuting dissident or minority views, as in the case of Sudanese journalist Shamael al-Nur last February.
For writing in a column in the independent newspaper Al-Tayyar that, “Islamic regimes are preoccupied with matters of virtue, women’s dress, appearance, more than health and education issues,” she was threatened with violence and with prosecution for apostasy, a charge punishable by death under the Sharia law in force in Sudan since 1983.
In a December 2013 report entitled “Blasphemy: Information sacrificed on altar of religion,” RSF examined the impact of the use of blasphemy charges against journalists worldwide, in particular the danger that they pose when used to restrict freedom of expression.
*Four Bangladeshi bloggers have been killed this way in 2015